Writing Helpers

The Art of Brevity: How to Improve Writing When Adverbs Get in the Way

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William Strunk Jr. was a professor of English at Cornell University who published The Elements of Style in 1918. One of his former students, E. B. White (author of such children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little), revised and expanded the original, which became a leading style manual for writers commonly referred to as Strunk & White. He had this to say about brevity:

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.

The quote is a wise instruction, but it still begs the question of why? I believe the best answer is this: In the 21st century, time is everyone’s most precious commodity. You may have important ideas, but there are many competing demands on people’s attention. To get your ideas across with as few words as possible, you must learn the art of brevity. Thomas Jefferson put it this way:

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

When it comes to improving writing skills, I like to learn from the best whenever possible, which is why you’ll find quotes from a variety of writers and thinkers scattered throughout this article.

England’s Poet Laureate from 1813-1843, Robert Southey, gives another good reason to aim for brevity: If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams – the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. By carefully choosing the fewest words possible, you increase the impact of your writing.

Brevity in writing is also a hallmark of thorough, rigorous thinking. In the words of American playwright David Belasco: If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea. And as writer Dennis Roth says: If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought. Brevity and clarity in writing are two sides of the same coin. Strunk echoes this same sentiment by noting the following: When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.

Be forewarned, however, that exercising the art of brevity is not easy. It takes both time and effort. French jack-of-all-trades Blaise Pascal provides an interesting window into this reality: I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter (translated from French). You’ve no doubt heard Albert Einstein’s famous quote that Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work. Louise Brooks, an actress who eventually became a writer about film, applied Einstein’s wisdom to writing in this way: Writing is 1% inspiration, and 99% elimination. One of the most challenging and fruitful writing assignments I worked on back in the early 1990s was creating a 25-page policy brief and then boiling it down to a 5-page document. I can’t even remember what the subject was, but it was the paring-down process that has stuck in my mind all these years later.

If you are the kind of writer that tends to be wordy, please take careful note of Mark Twain’s advice:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

Within that quote is the beginning of some very practical advice. He suggest killing most of your adjectives. I would add adverbs to the kill-list as well. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says this: I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. You needn’t eliminate them entirely, but you want to use them sparingly. They will have more power that way. The problem with adverbs is that they constitute a slippery slope. Once you start using them, it can be hard to stop.

Here is a list of the five most over-used adverbs that you should watch out for and avoid in your writing:

  • Extremely
  • Definitely
  • Truly
  • Very
  • Really

The exception is when you are writing dialog and your characters speak that way. If that’s the case, feel free to indulge your adverb habit. Otherwise, examine your writing and eliminate those five adverbs wherever they appear. They tend to be nothing more than “fluff.”

My primary objective in this first article on the art of brevity was to explain why it’s an important feature to strive for in your writing. A secondary objective was to introduce you to the problem of adverbs that clutter your writing.

Stay tuned for future brevity-related posts that will help you practice writing skills and make your articles read and understood clearly.