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Thursday, June 3, 2010


Concision is not brevity. ( A history of the world in 1,000 pages might be very concise.) Concision is the ratio of the number of words to the information conveyed. Consider Allen Ginsberg. You might consider "Howl" to be a very prolix work, but then you would be wrong. Look how these five lines recount five concise narratives:

who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night

You couldn't eliminate a single word from "who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York." It even has a passive voice! Eventually, though, Ginsberg's stories become similar to each other, overlapping in thematics so that the reader gets the (false) impression of verbosity. The same happens, however, with the Collected Stories of John Cheever or The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

I love really concise writing, because of its memorability and forcefulness. I resent, as a reader, having to plod through many pages to get a tiny bit of new information. With verbosity also comes a lack of clarity, since the information becomes harder to locate and analyze. Nevertheless, I don't advocate a nitpicking elimination of every word that could, conceivably, be eliminated. That is, at best, a heuristic experiment: see how many words in a paragraph you can take away without effecting the meaning. Can you say the same thing in 75% of the words? 50%? 25%?

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