A Lesson on Brevity

Dee Richards
3 min readJan 29, 2024
Image Description: A black-and-white photo of a pen resting on lined paper with cursive words written

To push the boundaries of word economy, a writer must learn the difficult art of brevity. I find it remarkably hard to master this particular art, despite my love for short work in both poetry and prose. The topic of economy in writing is both strengthened and weakened by an understanding of poetry. Poetry emphasizes the importance of each word. However, it draws heavily upon the subconscious imagery of the symbol — an easy thing to do in today’s emoji-laden communication. Composition doesn’t have that simple workaround, so needs to rely on craft and word choice. A writer must, instead, tap into the near-science of paragraph construction to convey important ideas quickly.

In classes, I’ve heard complaints about populating the required 700-word essay responses. In creative writing circles, I’ve read lamentations of the same limitation. A five-paragraph work of about 700 words seems highly limiting in today’s text modes. Crafting a paragraph feels like an arcane magic. The five paragraphs should be around eight sentences and 120 words. For reference, my previous paragraph was 112 words and seven sentences — right on target. In these eight sentences, you need a topic sentence in the first position and a transition in the final position. For those struggling to meet the word minimum, these two posts are a boon; they are a bane to the prolix writer. Many of us are, unfortunately.

While difficult, staying within a limited word count can be an exercise in concision. I tend to write as I think. Thoughts arise and are sprinkled into the paragraph like a child blowing on a white dandelion. They have no aim, no purchase; to do so is not writing craft. Think, instead, on painting. In painting, you don’t embellish your work endlessly until it’s “done,” then go back and erase, redo. There is an overvalued worship of the editing process in writing. I can write 2,300 words right now concluding the exact point which I am making now, then edit down to 700 words. The result will suck, but I can do it. Instead, I am editing as I go.

Self-editing is so much easier than you think. How to do it is encapsulated in the past three paragraphs. Look at the size of them, get a feel for their flow, and maybe even read them aloud. Use the topic sentence to guide your ideas in the next three, then work backward for the next three until the transition. What ideas, images, or thoughts don’t fit? What are needlessly wordy? Once you’ve mastered the paragraph, you look at the overall composition. Are you arriving at your intended conclusion? Did every paragraph serve that goal? If not, editing will only help if you let go of the precious ideas you’ve seeded there. The only way to master that is through heart-wrenching practice.

The greatest technique that poets practice is impactful word choice. I now alter the old saying from “talk” to “text is cheap.” Texting gives any person access to unlimited word counts and character limits, within reason of the receiver, but isn’t bound by the same rules as writing. Limitless thought and endless curiosity are the lifeblood of the developing child. However, we all must learn to edit ourselves as we grow. We sharpen a ravenous passion into skilled pursuit. It doesn’t mean that the passion isn’t there, just that we have acknowledged a need for concision to determine our impact. Word economy in writing is no different. The magic of paragraph composition serves only to strengthen these skills. I assure you that this is true because, before I wrote this, I wasn’t sure I could. This has been a practice in word economy. This post rounds out to about 650 words. My points were still made, and there was room for imagery. Truly the lesson was for me, but I hope that my brief understanding of brevity helps you too.

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Dee Richards

Dee has a BA in English with honors from UC Irvine; 3 awards in CNF; 8 fiction and CNF pubs to date; writer for The Key Reporter Mag; getting a Masters in CNF.