The Virtue of Brevity

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...
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I find that a lot of students in creative writing classes tend to struggle with writing shorter pieces, especially when it is on a topic they are excited or passionate about. Single page assignments will often run a page or two over, with the student complaining that one page just doesn’t allow enough space for the story they want to tell, or the message they want to convey. Why, they ask, are you trying to prevent me from writing more?

My response is to compare a president’s speech to potato chips. I’ll explain in a moment.

Self-editing, or condensing one’s work, can be one of the hardest parts of writing. The instinct is to pour as much on the page as much as possible, to use as many words as necessary to paint the perfect picture for the reader. The idea of restricting the space in which this must be accomplished seems almost antithetical to the cause.

To be sure, there are stories and ideas that demand more than a single double-spaced sheet of paper. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be distilled into a shorter format, even if it has to accomplished from a new angle or with a different approach. Big ideas don’t necessarily need big page counts.

This is where the president and the potato chips come in.

Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address clocked in at a mere 272 words. On the other hand, the average bag of Lay’s Potato Chips has approximately 401 words printed on it. In other words, it takes almost twice as much verbiage for Lay’s to describe their product on the packaging than it took a country’s leader to lay out the groundwork for the nation’s new direction towards unification and equality.

Sure, Abe probably could have spared a few more words. But sometimes less is more, and brevity can often be a virtue in itself. It may not always be easy, but then again, neither is writing.

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