On writing short

(Inspired by this.)

The point of writing short isn’t to be short; it’s to be concise. The goal isn’t to reduce the time it takes to read from the beginning to the end, but to reduce the friction it takes to read from one sentence to the next. That friction, not how far away the end looks, is what makes a reader drift away; if each sentence compels you to read the next one, you’ll read a 300,000-word novel.

Words are what create friction, much as air does. You can’t breathe without air and you can’t write without words, but too much of either slows you down.

But being concise doesn’t mean being boring. We think adding words creates style, but that’s like thinking that adding food creates nutrition. It’s adding meaning, through words, that creates style. If each word you use adds meaning, you can use as many as you like. Even as garrulous a verbal pyrotechnician as David Foster Wallace doesn’t use a single superfluous word:

And in this new smaller company, the Director of Composition seems abruptly to have actuated, emerged as both the Alpha of the pack here and way more effeminate than he’d seemed at first, standing hip-shot with a hand on his waist, walking with a roll to his shoulders, jingling change as he pulls up his pants as he slides into the chair still warm from C.T.’s bottom, crossing his legs in a way that inclines him well into my personal space, so that I can see multiple eyebrow-tics and capillary webs in the oysters below his eyes and smell fabric-softener and the remains of a breath-mint turned sour.

If you can express the same thing in fewer words, you always should.


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