Writing Center

The Importance of Writing with Brevity

By Sean Noble, Writing Tutor


Popular It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia character and personal role model Charlie Kelley once remarked, "Let me tell you, I side with Shakespeare on brevity." Charlie refers to Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Polonius utters the famous line, "Brevity is the soul of wit." I agree with Charlie's agreement.


It's very easy to quote Shakespeare and sound informed, but let's unpack that statement a bit. Doesn't Polonius's statement run contrary to all of our pre-conceptions of "good writing?" Are not the best writers those whose prose spans multiple lines, who formulate complex, intricate sentences which weave metaphor and sentence structure in and around the page as delicately as a spider spins her web?


No, obviously. Fanciful prose is often very difficult to read, and usually for no good reason. Unless you're taking a creative writing class, academic writing is not necessarily about fancy vocabulary or intricate prose. Rather, academic writing is about getting your point across succinctly and with clear organization. As a tutor, it's often difficult to convey to a student that I find their writing "too fancy," namely because on the outset it appears that I might be discouraging "good writing." The reality is that many students simply confuse what is obscuring with what is intellectual. Obscured writing, while fanciful and thought-out, ultimately "buries the lead," meaning that the point is hidden within the details. Intellectual writing, however, uses detail to give greater depth and meaning to a clear point. Both of these terms encompass what would be considered "advanced vocabulary and prose," meaning that it is possible to write with advanced vocabulary and prose that is obscuring, but not intellectual. Very often, this can be the case for student writing.


So how does one solve this issue? Where is the line drawn between confusing language and intelligent form? To answer this question I refer to the stock phrase: "Your intelligence should come through in your argument, not your wording." The phrase is meant to remind the listener of several considerations, but they can all be distilled into more or less one piece of advice. The "good" part of "good academic writing" originates from the content of the writing, not the writing style itself.


Now, there are certainly overly-simplistic ways to write. A rhetorical analysis with a train-of-thought structure and every sentence starting with "Also..." will not be very well received. But there is a point where it becomes necessary to acknowledge that writing, much like the rest of the world, is not black and white. Writing is not split into categories of "simple writing" and "complex writing." One should write well, but there is a distinction between writing with succinct wit and with aggrandized detail wherein the point is befuddled. Is there room for complex prose in academic writing? I'd like to think so. But with great power comes great responsibility; it's one thing to have a single, well-constructed sentence which comprises three lines within an essay, and another thing to write an entire essay using only such sentences. As with life, variety is the spice. Pepper in a few spicy sentences, but keep the rest of the style palatable.


So what's the takeaway from all this? As the U.S. Navy informs us: keep it simple, stupid. The best writers in academia write the simplest because they understand that writing is a tool to convey knowledge, not to demonstrate ability. There's no need to carve intricate, wordy prose into the ivory towers of academia. Just paint a nice picture for everyone to see. Leonardo da Vinci was a great painter, and he (allegedly) said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." So take a page of da Vinci's playbook; just don't take the page with the code in it. Tom Hanks needs that for a... thing he's got going on.

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