How to Be Succinct

Peter Wood

A woman seated next to our famously laconic 30th president at a White House dinner sallied, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet that I can get you to say more than two words.” Coolidge coolly dispatched her: “You lose.”

Like many such stories that seem to capture the characteristic grain of a man, this one is more folklore than fact. It exists in dozens of versions but hasn’t been traced to any reliable firsthand observer. But it is worth treasuring the same way we treasure Parson Weems’s fables (“I cannot tell a lie.”) about George Washington’s childhood.

Succinctness in riposte is one thing. (“Nuts,” was General McAuliffe’s one-word reply to the German demand that he surrender during the Battle of the Bulge.) It is harder to achieve when the occasion calls for synthesis. Lincoln did it. The Gettysburg Address offers a new birth of freedom in 271 words. Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, by contrast, grunts and sweats a weary 276.

But who am I to give advice on this topic? Succinctness usually eludes me. TheChronicle of Higher Education a few years back proposed that I post two 500-words blogs per week. I’ve seldom managed to keep them under 1500 words. My dissertation ran nearly a thousand pages. The publisher of my book, Diversity, deemed it long-enough at 300 pages and orphaned five chapters. Last week a put-upon reader posted a comment to one of my articles, “Could you please write more succinctly and clearly.”

Yes, I could. Succinctness has its season. In the age of Twitter, Samuel Johnson’s quip about Paradise Lost (“None ever wished it longer than it is.”) distills the sentiments of many readers who want the naked point, never mind the verdant context. We are also an age of massive no-incidental-fact-left-behind biographies and multi-volume novels for children (Harry Potter and the Interminable Series) and teens (The Hungry Twilight Games) which testify to an undead thirst for epic and romance. But the balance tilts to masters of brevity. The characteristic poets of our time are spare; op-eds are terse; and prescription re-fills are digitized.

I am not alone among the professoriate in wanting to say more than needful. I burn incense at the Shrine of the Footnote and when two roads diverge in a yellow wood, I take both. Still, I’ve learned the hard lessons of how and how not to take a long walk in a few strides. Thus:

Light a fuse. “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—”

Face facts. Don’t skimp on details; revel in them. The right ones make a point better than any well-crafted generalization.

If it doesn’t need explaining, don’t.

Hear the rhythm. "We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Don’t scrape away modifiers. You’re not sending a telegram. Kill sentences and burn paragraphs instead.

Find the apt metaphor. Jonathan Swift poked the spiritually somnolent with a sermon, “Upon Sleeping in Church.”

When you’ve made your point, shut up.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on April 24, 2012. 

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