3 (Brief) Benefits of Writing With Brevity

3 (Brief) Benefits of Writing With BrevityErnest Hemingway is famed for his sparse prose. Love his style or hate it, the man knew how to say what needed saying in the fewest words possible. In reading his World War I tragedy A Farewell to Arms, I was able to study the three main benefits of writing with brevity.

The 3 Main Benefits of Writing With Brevity

1. Shorter Word Count

Brevity inevitably contributes to a shorter word count, something that, for better or worse, is becoming more and more of a necessity in today’s fast-paced world. In fiction, every word—every punctuation mark, for that matter—counts.

2. More Vivid Word Choice

When you start chopping extraneous words, you’re forced to select verbs and nouns that are as colorful and powerful as possible.

3. Deepen Subtext

In writing with brevity, you will sweep your excess verbiage out of the way, allowing subtlety to flex its substantial muscles, as attested to by Hemingway’s explanation of his writing as an iceberg: 9/10 of it remain underwater:

If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with luxurious paragraphs of complicated phrasings and lush word choices. No one says you must use the fewest words in every sentence. In fact, doing so would rob prose of much of its beauty and power.

Variety is the spice of fiction as much as it is life. As such, it’s important to realize the punch and necessity of short, power-packed phrasings. They are a vital tool in your writing arsenal.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you naturally write with brevity? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’ve only read The Old Man and the Sea. Is that his typical style, because…well, I didn’t like it?

  2. I haven’t read that one, but I’m sure it’s pretty typical. I’m actually not much of a fan of his style either, but he does provide some good lessons in brevity.

  3. I’ve heard The Old Man and the Sea referred to as one of Hemingway’s “better works,” but as I have yet to read anything by him, I couldn’t tell you what that means.

    Stephen Lawhead in his Song of Albion Trilogy is a good example of what you’re talking about here. While I’m not a fan of his across the board, it was interesting to see how well he could pack a punch in just a sentence or two. Also, he could carry the plot on quickly, but capture the context and the power of a scene at the same time. That’s something that has stayed with me from those three books.

  4. The Old Man and the Sea is considered Hemingway’s finest work, probably because it won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel.

  5. And then there’s Faulkner who wrote these beautifully long meandering sentences that took up almost a page.

    I really like both styles. I wrote my master’s thesis on Hemingway. You might enjoy “A Moveable Feast,” a compilation of essays about his life as an expatriate published posthumously.

  6. I always got a kick out of what Hemingway and Faulkner supposedly said about one another:

    “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”—William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

    “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”—Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

  7. Brevity is very important. I’m wading through a Tom Robbins novel now, and while I enjoy his meandering, adjective-laden style, I know that I could never get away with it – at least not til I’m a famous author. 😉

    I heard somewhere that one should write an 8000 word novel, then cut out 6000 words. Seems like good advice. (numbers may be off there, but the point is clear).

  8. Ole Man and the Sea was required reading in high school lit class.

    The crux of the matter is using the right words, and only as many as you need to tell the story. I tend to write long and cut, but one of my crit partners (with a journalism background) has to go back and fill in.

    As Elmore Leonard (I think) said: “Don’t write the parts people skip.”

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  9. @Elaine: As someone who just axed 40,000 words from her fantasy novel, I heartily concur!

    @Terry: Definitely. The “right” words don’t have to be short words – they don’t even have to be the fewest words. But, when in doubt, short is often better.

  10. Like Abigail, I haven’t read Ernest Hemingway yet myself, and looking at my current growing list of books to read, it seems unlikely that it will happen soon. But I have learned that verbosity and brevity all have their places. Some things simply require more words to give the reader the comprehensive image, for to few of us does the gift of, as C.S. Lewis put it, saying “the very thing [we] really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what [we] really mean” come naturally. Most of us have to work hard at it. And in the mean time, we learn some times more words need to be used than at other times.

    I think both verbosity and brevity are necessary, but verbosity can be easy: brevity is too often overlooked, and I’m glad you addressed this.

  11. I agree. Once again: balance is always at the heart of good fiction. But you make a good point in that verbosity is usually much easier than brevity! There’s a lot of truth in the saying that “brevity is the soul of wit.”

  12. Does my voice have to be grammatically correct?

    Your timing on this post is perfect. As a new writer I’m searching for my voice. The problem I keep running into is that every time I think I find my voice, my grammar checker starts screaming at me in the form of green wavy lines all over my page.

    I dutifully back up and re-write my sentences grammatically correct. But afterwards, it doesn’t feel anything like my writing. My tone and voice were washed away – vanilla on a white page.

    I became extremely frustrated and developed a paralyzing case of writer’s block. My computer was literally refusing to let me write. I was stalled at the computer fearing my grammar checker was going to scold me for every attempt I made at developing my own style.

    Finally, exhausted and out of ideas, I turned my grammar checker off about a week ago. My writer’s block disappeared and I finally feel like I found my voice. Regardless of what the computer thinks.

    The problem is, if my sophomore English teacher ever reads my writing, she’ll be ashamed to admit I was ever in her class.

  13. The easy (and difficult) answer is: yes and no. Grammar and style rules are in place to make reading a universally compatible experience. If we we flout too many of these rules, our writing becomes illegible and no one will want to read us.

    That said, Microsoft Word’s grammar checker is next to useless. I’ve turned mine off as well. By all means study grammar and sentence structure to learn what’s correct, but don’t worry too much about stretching the language. That’s what creative writing is all about: pulling and stretching words in new and exciting ways that cause the language to continue its evolution. You might enjoy my post How to Find Your Voice.

  14. I didn’t like The Old Man and the Sea (I’m still not sure how he turned a story about catching a fish into a novel) but I really like his short story Hills Like White Elephants. It definately illustrates this point, because the story is about what is NOT said – but the reader catches on pretty quickly. There are no extra words there, nothing that could be cut; hardly even any description, yet it’s easy to picture the whole scene. A good writing lesson for sure.

  15. “Hills Like White Elephants” should be required reading for any writer. Even if we don’t Hemingway, he has lot to teach us.

  16. Brevity versus narrative. Interesting contemplation especially for a memoir. Sometimes difficult to figure out.
    Irene Kessler

  17. Most things in writing are difficult to figure out – if only because the answer is a little bit different for each of us!

  18. This is something I struggle with a bit. Particularly in a first draft, I tend to use a lot of words XD It’s something my critique group has commented on. I am curious about the actual process of trying to cut things down. I will be embarking on my first major edit of a completed first draft. And I am terrified of this one. I don’t know how to necessarily recognize where I can shorten things. Do you have any advice?

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