Sunday, February 25, 2007

Probing the limits of brevity

I remember reading somewhere that, when in doubt, attribute aphorisms to Mark Twain.

One of my favorites about writing, "If I'd had more time, I'd have written less,"is credited to Twain.

I found myself invoking it on Saturday when I gave a short talk to neighborhood leaders who write for a neighborhood newspaper. They are busy people so they don't spend much time in writing their monthly news updates for the paper. Accordingly, their submissions often are tediously long.

The staff that puts out the paper answers to the neighborhood leaders and is therefore reluctant to cut words. As a result, the writing ends up unedited and printed in boring, gray expanses in the generally drab paper, which is called the SW News. (Visitors: SW stands for Southwest, as in Southwest Portland, which is not in Maine, but Oregon.)

I mention all this because, by sheer synaptic chance, I stumbled upon an un-Twain-like way of capturing his idea.

"It took me twice as long to write half as much."

It sounds pithy, until you realize it is two words longer than Twain's version.

I was hoping to get the whole thing down to four or five words. And no, I didn't run out of time.

Brevity has its limits.

Note: Rooting around on the Internet, I found this comment about the Twain quote: "I thought he meant he would've spent less time writing about life and more time living it [if he had had more time]. Am I the only one that saw it that way?"

I didn't read it that way, but now that you mention it....

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Blogger ALT said...

In Twain's aphorism he uses a contraction twice. If he had written "I had" and "I would" it would be as long as yours.

In your aphorism, you could drop "It" and "me" and still get the point across since they are understood.

It would then be equal or less than Twain's.

9:48 AM  

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