Keep it short, except when it needs to be long

Here’s a New York Times op-ed that spends 800 words or so extolling the virtues of brevity when it comes to writing.  Except, of course, the author doesn’t really mean that.  It’s only towards the end that he quotes from Strunk and White, who say what he really means:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Got it.  Now, why did we need the other 700 words?

This comes to mind when reading this listicle from The American Scholar listing the “ten best sentences,” which presumably boils down to “ten sentences that the editors really like.”  Many of them are decidedly not short, like this one from Nicholas Nickleby:

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

But here is a brief beauty from Lolita:

There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.

And in the comments someone mentions one of my favorites — this classic from Ring Lardner:

“Shut up,” he explained.

Every word tells.

2 thoughts on “Keep it short, except when it needs to be long

  1. Pingback: Do you write and tell? | richard bowker

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