Does Every Word Tell?

When he was asked how long it took to prepare a speech, Woodrow Wilson is supposed to have said: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

In our writing classes, we often learn—despite the frustrated effort of our teachers—more about chasing word counts than we do about writing well. “College-level” writing is all about semantic inflation, and college students often brag about that skill. In fact, they have a special word for that kind of writing that I can’t use on this blog. (I market my services to Christians, after all.)

 
 

My seventh-grade language arts teacher had an alliterate phrase that she drilled into her students: “Write for quality, not for quantity.” Inflated writing is a mark of poor preparation. It is a mark of professional writing, on the other hand, that it is not packed with unnecessary fluff. It says all it needs to say without wasting the reader’s time. Strunk and White sum it up very well:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Not that great writers have never used a word too many. Some writing is great because of (or, sometimes, in spite of) it’s tendency to carry on.

In general, though, this is not a good habit to embrace, and a good piece in the style of Strunk and White will never say anything in eighty words that could be said in thirteen. Before you hit ‘submit’ on your next project, ask yourself the question: Does every word tell?

Just don’t overdo it.


 
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
— Strunk and White