Thursday, August 09, 2007

Land of the free press, home of the brevity

Today's News-Leader features a guest opinion column entitled, "Liberal News-Leader controls the debate -- and this letter." Proof of said liberalism, the writer says, is that he was asked to pare down a previous letter he wrote to a mere 200 words. Because that letter, in his own words, "completely destroyed" the basis of the U.S. as a liberal nation, the request was obviously a tacit form of liberal censorship. What he said next made me uncontrollably laugh out loud:

The truth has no word limits.

Cue a ragged Stephen Colbert wandering down the street wearing a sandwich board...

Seriously, though, I understand. Those of us who write, particularly when spoiled by the editorial anarchy that is blogging, feel entitled to use as many words as humanly possible in order to get our point across to a (hopefully) receptive and open-minded audience. See what I just did? That's a lot of words to say what could been said with a lot more brevity. What I'm trying to say is that writers often take too much time and space to express that which could be paraphrased into much shorter, tighter sentences. Dammit, did it again! Moving on...

When I was coming up through the ranks of the writing military, one of the major criticisms levied against me was that, despite making and supporting strong points, I often took half an hour to get to the point. "You're very bombastic!" was how one professor put it. I still don't know if that was a compliment or an insult. After a live TV appearance on a local political show several years ago, my mom said, "You talk like you write." I knew exactly how to take that. Likewise with my oral master's exam, when one of the professors on my committee said, "I don't question your mastery of the material, but you should learn how to directly answer questions." The lesson learned: writing and talking are inextricably linked.

So it's true what teachers say: before submission, read your work out loud. If it sounds like the ramblings of that guy at every party who monopolizes the conversation, shorten it. Length does not equal gravitas; people aren't going to read a rambling rant for too long if they feel they aren't getting their words' worth. Self-editing makes you a better writer and pundit. It will also diminish the need for trimming that happens with every newspaper article. Our editorial page is not run by Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; that honor goes to two of my best friends, Space and Clarity.

In short, the truth does not take unlimited words to express. Tighten your writing by pretending you are speaking it. Leaving out long-winded rants is not proof of liberal bias, but a bias toward maximizing space. Speaking of which, this paragraph makes every point made in the rest of the post. I guess you should have read this first. Sorry...

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Hey Ian - just thought you'd enjoy this clip, on the subject of editing. :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjhOBiSk8Gg