The long and the short

December 14, 2016 Comments Off on The long and the short

There’s a great scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral right near the beginning, at the reception of the first wedding, where Charles and his friend, Fiona, are chatting.

The dialogue goes like this: 

CHARLES: Any idea who the girl in the black hat is?

FIONA: Name’s Carrie.

CHARLES: She’s pretty.

FIONA: American.

CHARLES: Interesting.

FIONA: Slut.

CHARLES: Really?

And with just those few words and a quizzical eyebrow from Hugh Grant, a whole story is told.

There’s a tendency among some writers – professional and amateur – to use far too many words. Many words, they think, will make them seem more clever, more profound, more ‘writerly’.

But writing short is much more difficult, because you can’t explain yourself endlessly. You have to choose that one precise word that will tell a whole story; conjure up an exact image, stoke a compelling emotion.

There’s a quote that’s been attributed to Twain, Lincoln and Hemingway, among others, along the lines of, “I’m sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Whatever the source, that quote holds great truth. Good concise writing takes time and a craftsman’s touch.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s a famous six-word story, usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway, which has spawned a genre online. Urban legend has it that he wrote this after a wager with other writers: his authorship is unsubstantiated, but I like to believe it’s true. And anyway, it’s a great story.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Tell me again how that thing you wrote is too short to say what you need to say?


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