How to write briefly, succinctly – and long

One of the key lessons for writers – repeated endlessly by those who teach it – is keep it tight.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Succinctly: that’s me, there.

Writing isn’t about word count – it’s about content. The right content. Any sentence that doesn’t move the content along is padding. Keep the focus. Drop those adjectives. If it’s fiction, does it move the plot and character arc along? If it’s non-fiction, how does that relate to the argument?

It’s a sound lesson, and it’s one that usually translates into brevity.

But brevity is not the only way to tackle that particular challenge. The other is writing by floods of words; a profligacy of words; a cascade of words;  words flowing like a river, pooling into great lakes of words, all adding depth to meaning. All without forgetting that essential lesson – that every point, every argument, has to move things forward.

New Zealand’s master was the late Sir Paul Holmes, a journalist whose style involved repeating a phrase, re-nuanced, from different angles. Very chatty, very accessible.  He  used to review my books on air; I was able to repay the compliment, later, when I had chance to review his book on the 1979 Erebus disaster. It was a wonderful book, not least because of Holmes’ fabulous written styling.

I parodied Holmes’ verbal style, explicitly, in one section of my science-fiction history Fantastic Pasts (Penguin 2008). Now out of print.

We find much the same style in the books of an English writing community – Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry and Ben Elton.

I twigged to it when I discovered a passage in one of Elton’s novels in which he took the best part of a page to describe a sink of dirty dishes. A waterfall of words, every one of them essential – because what he was doing wasn’t describing the dishes; he was describing reactions to them.

It was a way of making the reader feel what Elton felt. And there’s similar in Adams’ work (a tragedy, of course, that he passed away). Fry spelt it out in one of his autobiographies – a profligacy of words, a love of words. And yet these people didn’t waste their words; they styled them, lovingly, into shapes and patterns that drew readers in and made them hungry for more.

Something, perhaps, that we could all aim for.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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5 thoughts on “How to write briefly, succinctly – and long

  1. Your point about each point/argument moving any piece along may be the most important aspect of writing. Actually, I often think it is for if the piece progresses in every sentence, it is moving along in every word. That’s the kind of writing we all remember, sometimes well enough to quote. Another fine post on writing for all writers, Matthew.


    1. Thank you! Yes, that principle of movement is the essence of writing. What I find so extraordinary is the way that Messrs Fry, Elton etc can do so, stylistically, with a profligacy of words – none of which are wasted. A skill, I think, that is as difficult to master as the ‘sparsity principle’.


  2. “Writing isn’t about word count – it’s about content.”

    Thank you for that sentence. Sometimes I feel like left behind, because I don’t reach the word count others do reach – and sometimes it’s hard to keep on focusing on the content if one seems to be judged only by his or her word count.


    1. Word count is a tool – a device for scale and structure. Nothing more. Editors commission to word count because it provides the scale that they want, and word count then provides a way of quantifying the structure of the writing that follows. But it’s not an end-goal in itself. I find it curious that so many tools are available to display ‘word count’ as ‘progress to a goal’, when that’s absolutely not what it’s about at professional level.


  3. Another excellent post with a critical lesson within. I’m still trying to understand Ray Bradbury wrote the way he did. His writing alone was some comforting and pleasing. I’ve never been able to manage that. Lately, I’ve been writing for challenges and my description is extremely sparse. Someday, I’d love to write those elegant descriptions of things the way Bradbury did it and not have it appear to flowery.

    I’d love to see an example of Holmes’ writing. Can you point me to an example online?


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