The little bit of ivory and the traditional virtue of the exquisite tweet

How long does this have to be?
Should we teach to the text (message)?

Forget about the five paragraph essay, what about the five (abbreviated) word text and the exquisite tweet?

Lots of commentary about a recent article with follow-up  here in the NYTimes about the importance of concise writing.  Without a doubt it is an aspiration we need to teach and a skill we need to practice. Charles Dickens was paid by the word but that was a different era. Our students will need to convey meaning with precision not padding. And that, after all, is a traditional virtue.

So no more playing with font size, margins and line spacing – concentrate on the message and get it done. Let the meaning and purpose dictate the length not some arbitrary goal based on abstract numbers. All that teenage text messaging may prove useful.

So once we are over the shock horror of the faux fears that this means the end of literature, let’s remember the distinction between the leisurely novel and the haiku. Both have their place. And with the time saving from precise non-literary and meditative communication there is time for both.

Maybe Jane Austen who wrote of “… the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” is the model. She certainly knew how to skewer  human absurdity with the tightly constructed sentence.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

With so much in 23 words the joy is with the reader who gains the time to unpack the import and consider the implications for the novel that follows.

Brevity and the Holy Grail

Of necessity telegrams paved the way. With no room for verbiage the trick was stick to the key facts and maximum impact.the perfect practice run for the requisite tweet:

From North Carolina in 1903 came the news of the Wright brothers first flight: “Successful four flights Thursday morning.”

And for an effective implied back story it’s hard to beat the signal sent by the Admiralty to all British ships on September 3rd, 1939. “Winston is back.”

Literary humorists rehearsed for the tweet world too. Mark Twain’s telegram from London  in 1897 on hearing that his obituary had been published:  “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.

And Robert Benchley who on his arrival in Venice wrote to his editor at the New Yorker :”Streets full of water. Please advise.”

The emphasis on making every work count may now be driven by our shortening attention span and the 140 characters of a tweet but concise writing and effective communication are old skills. It’s just that they are now more important than ever.

So writers we need brevity to cut through the noise and as readers need better sorting hats and chaff rejectors.  Clay Shirkey says – it’s not information overload but filter failure.

It can be fun to play the game of reduction and try to get right the core.

When a teacher emailed the link to faculty it sparked some wonderful subterranean email communication. It reminded one teacher of an assignment to write the E-bay ad for the holy grail:

Large, shallow bowl, some persistent blood stains

And that led to:

Why have the blood stains not been cleansed? We do have a blood-borne pathogens policy in the Faculty Handbook.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes short reflective pieces about rural life for the NYTimes editorial page. he has at least one devoted reader – Frankie Thomas – who routinely skewers them: “I summarize Verlyn Klinkenborg’s columns so you don’t have to read them.”

Monday, 11/29/10: “Night Vision”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/opinion/30tue4.html?ref=verlyn_klinkenborg

Verlyn Klinkenborg walks around his farm at night and concludes that it is hard for him to see in the dark because he is not nocturnal.

And for the still not quite dead era of interminable PowerPoint, here is the advice of Guy Kurasaki:

ten slides, no more than twenty minutes, no font smaller than thirty points.

But when it comes to the art of using obfuscation, delay and wordiness Dickens is our reliable guide. Thanks to him we all know of that most secret and undisclosed government  Circumlocution Office dedicated to: Not getting things done. Here’s is the beginning of chapter 10 of Little Dorrit:

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being
told) the most important Department under Government. No public
business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the
acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the
largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was
equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the
plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution
Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour
before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified
in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of
boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official
memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence,
on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the
one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a
country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been
foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining
influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever
was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand
with all the public departments in the art of perceiving–HOW NOT TO DO IT.

So here’s to good writing whatever the purpose and length. Being a Barnacle is not a worthy aspiration in government or elsewhere.

Congratulations on having read this far. Any suggestions for the perfect tweetable precis?

1 Comment

  1. Stephanie:

    You have some comic geniuses on your faculty!
    [Large, shallow bowl, some persistent blood stains

    And that led to:

    Why have the blood stains not been cleansed? We do have a blood-borne pathogens policy in the Faculty Handbook.]

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