The other day CM and I were catching up. We hadn’t chatted in months. He’s been working on his yard. Landscaping. The big project was a picket fence. I betcha it looks good. As assiduous readers will recall from prior posts, I’ve started the rewriting and editing process. I shared with him the good news that the first draft of the book was complete and that the goal was to get the book down from 210 pages to 150 or less. ‘The writing has to be concise’, I said, parroting what the style guides were saying. Concision is everything. But then CM asked, ‘What exactly is concision in writing?’. Well, I hadn’t actually thought of that! Concise is to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. But what is ‘as much as possible’? How does one know? Is there a boundary between too little and too much?
How to Express Concision
Communication is a two way street. When attempting to get ideas across, it’s always helpful to remember how the other person is looking at things. It just so happens that me and CM share a construction background. In fact, years ago, when I was thinking of getting into the trades, I asked CM which trade I should get into. He said if he were doing it all again, he’d check out either electrical or plumbing: they’re paid well and you’re not outside working in the rain or on top of a slippery roof.
So, when asked ‘What exactly is concision in writing?’, I came up with the following: concision is like what you find on a blueprint. Tradespeople read blueprints when they build a house. The print tells them where the stairs go, the rise and the run of the treads, how many levels the house has. It tells them how to lay out the walls, where the bathrooms are, and how many bedrooms there are. It does not tell them where to hang the Monet, where to put the TV, or which pan goes into which cupboard.
The plan tells the tradespeople what they need to know to build the house. And in very exact terms: the shear wall will be screwed together with certain types of screws. The length and type of plating of exterior screws will be specified. But it does not go beyond what it is designed to do: it will not talk about where the TV goes, for example. This is concision: the state of expressing as efficiently as possible what needs to be said.
How Concision Works
If a set of blueprints for a house can be described as being ‘concise’, concision works because there is an understanding between the architect who drafts the blueprints and the tradespeople who interpret the blueprints. Through experience, the architect knows what to put on the blueprints and what not to put on. And through experience, the tradespeople know what to look for. A book then, must be like a set of blueprints: it must start off with a well defined goal. Just as the point of a blueprint is so a house can be built, the writer must define the purpose of the book.
To continue the analogy, once the writer defines the purpose of a book, the next thing to establish is the book’s audience. Just as an architect is making a set of blueprints for tradespeople, the writer must figure out who the audience is. That way, the right amount of information is conveyed. Once the architect defines the audience as an audience of tradespeople, certain things can be said which do not need further elaboration. For instance, if acoustic insulation is specified, it can be presumed that the tradespeople are familiar with how to install it: no need to give a lesson on the history and application of acoustic insulation. For the same reason, if a writer is writing about theatre to an audience of theatregoers, there is no need to give the background of each play under discussion: it can be presumed the audience is already familiar. There is no need, for example, to say that Macbeth is a play by Shakespeare in which an ambitious vassal assassinates his lord. That information would be superfluous. To include it would not be concise.
The Current State of Paying Melpomene’s Price
Now that the process of rewriting and editing the book has started, how does it look? To use the blueprint analogy, currently the book is like a glorious house built in the clouds. It has no foundation. Some of the stairs lead nowhere. Others are in the wrong place. It needs concision.
But even in this bad state, one can tell that the house has an interesting design. With the proper corrections, one could live in there. And comfortably. The crucial thing I can see right now is that what I have created is not yet a house, but, can become a house with the proper revisions. And that for now is good enough. Actually, in a way, I’m counting my lucky stars because I’ve started off a lot of projects where, looking back on them, they’re not even salvageable.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work many times over.
Are you mixing up concision and direction? (“stairs lead nowhere …. in the wrong place”). Some of the (? most of the) great classics are hardly concise – War and Peace and Moby Dick come to mind quickly.
Concision is perhaps more for the technical, mechanistic works and rightly so. Art is not inherently concise. Some of the best (and some of the weirdest, admittedly) literature I’ve read has headed off seemingly in all directions, tangents, etc. some of which is thoroughly confusing at the time and yet when I finish the chapter or book or whatever I have this impression of something that was “whole and good” and could hardly have accomplished that without the filigrees and frippery.
Good points. The best art is not absolutely concise: rather, it’s fruitfully ambiguous like you say.
You ever watch sport interviews? You know, when they interview the guy that’s lost the game and ask him what he should have done different? And he replies, ‘I should have scored more goals’. Well, that to me is sort of like what these writing and style manuals recommend. ‘Be more concise’ is like ‘score more goals’.
Maybe it’s not concision after all. Maybe it’s conviction. Conviction in delivery. A lot of the classics go off on tangents like you say. But the best classics, even when they go off in tangents or use flowery language, are ‘convinced’ in their presentations. It’s like watching a play. Like a Shakespeare play. Some actors say the lines perfectly but without conviction. Like they didn’t understand what they were saying. But other actors speak the lines with conviction. Like they understood perfectly. The language can be ornate. But ornate language can be spoken with or without conviction. And it makes a big difference. Maybe conviction is the thing to strive for. Not concision.
Good. Conviction and focus (talent helps too). Even if a writer goes off in all directions if there is conviction and focus I’m still (mostly) interested because there is a purposefulness to it = the skeleton of the dissertation is still there and I can see it. If, on the other hand, the writer seems utterly whimsical and I can’t follow or relate then I’m often done with that piece – there’s too much beautiful literature in this world to waste time on something that just seems like hard work and (sometimes) to be able to say “sure I’ve read some Faulkner and Rushdie”. I’m either not sophisticated enough in my appreciation of that category of fine literature or a voice crying out “the emperor has no clothes”.
That reminds me of an old quote, can’t remember who came up with it: ‘A classic is something everyone wants to have read and no one wants to read’ 🙂
I also appreciate writers who make reading easy and fun. Even difficult topics can be easy to read. The philosopher J.L. Austin is an example in ‘How to Do Things with Words’. He says ‘The cat on the mat’ is a descriptive sentence because it describes. But ‘You’re fired’ or ‘I baptize this ship Mr. Stalin’ (actual example!)are examples of performative speech because it is ‘doing’ something. Complicated idea but simple explanation. More writers could take a cue from Austin.