Friday, November 21, 2008

The Sin of Verbosity and the Art of Brevity

I have much to say, but I'm going to make myself say it in less than 500 words. You'll see why.

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is self-improvement. Our shortcomings may be obvious to all around us but we can be blind to them. If you can recognize your shortcomings you can do something about them, and if you really work at it you can make some amazing and lasting changes in yourself.

One of my shortcomings is the sin of verbosity: taking too many words to say something. That is, using a much larger number of words to express something that really could be said in a much shorter and clearer way. Coupled with this is repetition, needlessly repeating what has already been said which is unnecessary because it has already been said. Do you see what I mean?

What's so bad about being verbose? It's just a few extra words after all. In fact, the driving force behind verbosity (at least in my case) is the desire to be precisely understood. To me it's always seemed downright dangerous to just say a few words: they might be understood incorrectly or incompletely. I now know that notion is completely backwards. Verbosity does not aid clarity, it impairs it.

Some people just downright hate verbosity. When my book Programming Indigo came out, one of the first reviews
rather unnecessarily went to great lengths to trash the book. While I think the attack was way overblown (many have told me they appreciated this book), it was clear the reviewer was mostly offended by verbosity and repetition. And to that I plead guilty.

When I worked at Microsoft, my superiors had little tolerance for verbosity, or for me. :) While there I learned a great deal about how to take raw information and distill it into its essence and communicate it in a concise way with clarity. This takes work. Whoever said "if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter" knew what they were talking about: brevity with clarity requires effort and refinement. It may come naturally to a precious few, but the rest of us have to work at it. Especially the great unwashed, verbozos like me. Brevity of course is right in line with the larger concept of Less is More.

Am I over my verbosity? No way, I'll need to consciously work at it for the rest of my life. But as an ongoing student of brevity, I'm getting better at it. I sometimes take 30 minutes to compose an email, not to make it long but to make it short--and clear. And I was able to reduce this blog posting from its original 1000 words down to 460. That says a lot.