Towards Economical Writing: A Pseudo Pundit’s Guide to Prudent Prose

The prudent writer will attempt to restrain his spending habits somewhere between Ebenezer Scrooge and Kim Kardashian. He will do this by prioritizing three things.

On the one hand, such a writer fears (rightly) any method which – in language or form – might indicate a dearth of supply. He will guiltlessly pursue good literature; he will use his thesaurus with reckless abandon; he will freely pillage his stores of allusion, analogy, and hyperbole to the utmost breadth of his means. He will glory in the (spiritual) riches of words.  On the other hand, the maxim that more isn’t always better may often keep him awake at night wondering if a certain sentence shouldn’t have been divided or if that ten-syllable word wasn’t a bit of an overkill. 

On the last hand, he acknowledges – with a sigh of relief I might add – that he is dust, and that his words, even honed to their finest edge, are still blunt and mortal weapons. Sobered by such depths and heights, such a rare soul may find himself reaching out for that lofty ambition: The Responsible Communicator. Such a one is is frugal without being miserly, rich without being cloying; in sum, he knows not only the power of words, but the measure at which such powers will best be realized.

Sentence Economy: 

Just as there exists those savage minimalists who might just throw out the silverware with the knick-knacks, so we must acknowledge the writer whose prose is so compact that any hope of personality and savor becomes lost. But being that these kind of writers are in the minority, it must be stated that the best writing is that which minimizes unnecessary words without sacrificing clarity of thought or excellence of expression. 

This means not only being alert to unnecessary adverbs and redundant expressions, but ensuring that every sentence in your paragraph is part of a loving family (namely, your main idea, but more on that later) and not wandering the streets past curfew with only a birthday candle to light the way.

Language Economy: 

I’ve said before that verbosity is the lazy man’s profundity. That’s because it isn’t hard to make complicated ideas sound complicated – pseudo-academics love this tactic, and seem to derive a pleasure equal to the bewilderment of their audience. 

People who communicate responsibly however, are those who are primarily interested in the betterment of their audience – in the growth of their character, in their being able to increasingly appropriate enriching ideas. As this applies to writing, this means using the simplest language possible while keeping intact that which you are trying to communicate.

If you are unsure as to whether an idea will suffer from the simplification of a word, you can always use the word and follow with a succinct definition if possible. Readers will rarely be offended by this strategy and you will have accomplished the dual benefit of enlarging their vocabulary and preemptively dealing with misunderstanding. The best communicators don’t presume on the acuity of the reader/listener. Rather, they are able to anticipate possible objections and confusions, and work to lead them through as  clearly as possible.

The one exception to this rule of course is if you find yourself among a group of demented individuals who enjoy soaking in long words and meandering ideas as they might a lavender bath. In these cases, obfuscation is always preferable (you see what I did there?)

Idea Economy:

We’ve all been on the receiving end of “conversations” that aren’t so much about exchange as about compressing the maximum amount of subjects into the minimum amount of time. In these situations, the mind barely has time to reflect on one thought before it is buried beneath a wheelbarrow load of several others.  

This occurs in writing, or speaking, when several ideas are piled on top of each other with no obvious shape, progression, or conclusion. As it concerns arguing or presenting ideas, I’ve found the most digestible way to do so is by remembering the acronym AEIR (Announce, Enunciate, Illustrate, Reiterate) which is easy to remember as it nearly shares the name of a popular undergarment supplier.

When embarking into the announcing phase, the object is to put down, as clearly and cleanly as possible, what it is you are proposing. It doesn’t have to be as shriveled and naked as a bare statement, but it must be clearly discernible. 

In the enunciation phase, you have the opportunity to give shape, color, and mettle to your idea. Just as we enunciate words – that is, not slurring or mumbling them together but allowing every consonant and vowel a voice – to guard against misunderstanding, so we must also enunciate our ideas in order to avoid a similar fate.

Thirdly, we have illustration. For many people, ideas remain vague and somewhat sinister until clothed in something more substantial. To discuss the idea of beauty may have merit – but in terms of sheer weight, the word will only have substance as it is attached to an image. You may find this step the most difficult in your writing as often ideas we thought were clear to us are not as obvious as we supposed.

Lastly, we must reiterate. This means restating, preferably using simple, summarized language, the idea you set out to prove in the first place. Here you are putting the ‘period’ on your idea, which tells us all that you are finished, and that we can get a snack, and come back refreshed to wrestle with your next one.

Again, there is fluidity to the above scheme, and one’s competence in the art of the craft will influence how jarring the divisions are. I guess the final thing I should mention is that while it is important that writer’s write functionally (that is, with an aim in view), it is equally important that writing not be reduced only to function. Most wouldn’t think very highly of a musician who sings only for a paycheck, or who sings only to promote an ideology. As with all art, there should be an underlying delight in the tools themselves as well as the final product.

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