Some years ago I read a Pushcart Prize piece whose title was also a precise description: “One Thousand Words on Why I Should Not Talk during a Fire Drill.” A perfect illustration of the notion that sometimes more is less, the essay warns against two practices that are regrettably too common among teachers: 1) attaching minimum word limits to writing assignments and 2) assigning writing as punishment. The Pushcart piece is of course unreadable: counting its 1,000 words one by one is easier than making sense of them because engaging seriously with its repetitiveness is like giving oneself the Chinese Water Torture.
The student assigned a punishment piece knows that no literary virtue will matter in the finished work and suspects that the teacher assigning it will not actually read it attentively. The teacher thereby doubly undermines good writing by trivializing it and by depriving the student of the intellectual and affective engagement that it should receive in normal circumstances.
Nor may the assignment of word limits be the best way of dealing with writing that is not given for punishment. Better than setting an arbitrary word limit would be marking up a short first draft with the kinds of questions and comments that any draft should provoke at need:
- Example? Illustration?
- Could you explore this in greater detail?
- What are you implying?
- Chain of reasoning is incomplete.
Students addressing them would be taking one of the needed steps towards quality in writing without pumping up their stuff with words words words. But it is hard to move against a current carrying notions with it that length equals quality. The I. B. Organization has minimum requirements of length for many of the assessments it requires of the students taking its courses, and the SAT I Writing sample, according to one of its critics, rewards length and ignores errors.
Length-lovers should have a chastening look at Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the Mount Everest of political discourse in English, which is under two pages long and uses fewer than seven hundred words. It is figuratively and literally lapidary, having been carved in stone on an interior wall of the Lincoln Memorial. It is sad to think that, submitted as a high-school thesis in government, it might “lose points” for its brevity.
One of the reasons Dr. Johnson’s conversation was famous was his ability to say things briefly. Asked one time why in his Dictionary he defined pastern as “the knee of a horse,” he disarmingly said, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”
His distillations could be acidic and painful. He once disparaged fishing as “a stick and a string with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.” Mary Monckton, later Lady Cork, insisted that she found Laurence Sterne moving. Johnson replied crushingly, “That is because, dearest, you’re a dunce.” Dorothy Parker had also mastered the pungent quip. When someone came to the Algonquin Round Table to announce that Calvin Coolidge had died, Parker asked, “How could they tell?” But Coolidge was famous for a brevity that was a parody of itself. Asked once what the preacher’s sermon at church had been about, he said, “Sin.” When asked what the preacher had said: “He was against it.”
In a postscript to his XVI Provincial Letter Blaise Pascal apologized that “I made this letter longer only because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.” In this thought we see both why brevity is not automatically the soul of wit and why brevity can be solid stuff. The important conditions of good-quality brevity are that, except the rare gem of repartee, it take time or carry a context with it.
Major General Sir Charles Napier was famous in his day for many things, one of them a one-word military dispatch that he sent by telegram. Since telegrams were billed by the word and extremely costly, the medium carried a built-in impetus to brevity. In 1844, at the conclusion of his campaign to conquer the Sindh in northwestern India, he sent this wire to London: PECCAVI. It is the Latin for “I have sinned.”
And Evelyn Waugh wrote what must be the shortest letter on record as a post card, a medium that used to encourage (often witty) brevity in its users. He learned that his first wife had had an affair with his friend John Heygate, who came to regret the affair and confessed it at church. His confessor would absolve him only on the condition that Heygate obtain Waugh’s forgiveness. In reply to Heygate’s written plea Waugh wrote JH OK EW.
All these examples suggest that wit is the soul of brevity. Unfortunately, most of the time most of us will not produce such gems and must meet demand with longer, less coruscating and more time-consuming expedients like selection, development, elaboration, synthesis, and other requirements of ordinary writing. When we forget this, we are in the same danger as those who report events in real time. The danger, often realized, is that they sound like the people you hear on their cell phones in the grocery store: “I’m in the produce section now.”
A related danger lurks in “threaded discussions” of the kind one finds after some newspaper columns and blog postings. This twin danger is that, being mediated, these “discussions” lose the zest of immediacy that only live conversation provides, and that no compensating virtue such as wit or pungency will take its place. Instead we find pedestrian writing full of red herrings and goony insults. The exceptions that prove the rule prove it all too infrequently.
And so we come to an article in The New York Times about teachers who use “social media” in their classes to encourage students to “speak up.” I experimented with them and regretfully gave them up. I say regretfully because it was clear that my painfully shy students found them a tolerable alternative to classroom discussion and conversation with the teacher, and one doesn’t happily give up such helpful innovations.
The problem was that the same mediation that made these encounters tolerable to the painfully shy left most students and me impatient for something zestier and less etiolated (though my students didn’t say so in quite these words). And there were the bandwidth problems that slowed everything down, turning such “discussions” and the attention they demanded and then thwarted into cases of arrested envelopment. There were also students who welcomed the slowdown of intellect imposed by the medium’s snail-pace as a chance to be contented in a semi-vegetative state. I ended up preserving live discussion when I could spark it into flame, and I told the shy students that they could make arrangements with me for supplementary discussion.
A conversation is fleeting unless a Boswell or a recording gadget is taking it down, and though we might regret that Boswell took down a scant fraction of the conversations Dr. Johnson actually enlivened, in general we are glad to have old discussions fade away. Boswell’s diaries reveal that even he was highly selective of his material. How much briefer—or more selective—we should be, and yet how much less brevity and selectivity of writing some contemporary media encourage.
That is why my rule of thumb for how long students should talk or write is usually “short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the subject.” I would add here that purpose and medium matter too.
 It’s a pity that the Provincial Letters are about a subject few people now want to explore at length because they are a masterpiece of polemical prose: lucid, witty, authoritative, and devastating. In them Pascal invented the blog posting and at the same time produced the incomparable masterpiece of the genre.