12 MIN READ
This week, series editor Tom Robertson provides a crucial tip on how to make your writing more effective and interesting — keep it short.
In Nepal, if you are at the end of an event and a politician announces he'd like to add “one or two words”, watch out! Cancel your afternoon plans. Buckle your seatbelt. Hold onto your hat. Pull out your mobile. It might be a long ride.
Nepal has a tradition of long speeches. This makes sense in an oral, still mostly rural, society. Some may be surprised to learn that similar speaking tradition dominated in the US when it was a mostly rural society in the 19th century.
But we now live in the age of Twitter — even in Nepal. Traditions are shifting. As one Nepali friend likes to put it, everything these days is “to the point”.
Conciseness is crucial. More is less. Less is more. Once I realized this, my writing improved dramatically. It's a lesson that could help a lot of writers.
Readers face many big challenges. Unfamiliar territory. Confusion. Complex ideas, difficult words. Unclear transitions. Tiredness. Hunger. Boredom. But nothing causes more trouble — more dukkha — for readers than too many words, especially unnecessary ones.
Clear and precise words, no problem. But unnecessary words, redundant words, fancy words, words that don't add anything new — these just block the way forward. Worse, they confuse and distract. They pull us away from the right path, the clear and useful words we should be focusing on. Unnecessary words muddy the picture. Fewer, more precise words make your readers happy.
Unfortunately, Nepali students often learn exactly the wrong thing. They learn that the more words they write, the better the grade. The longer, the better. This makes me sad. Short and sweet is the way to go. Chhoto ra mitho!
Good writing is like sculpture. The more you cut, the clearer your vision takes shape. With each little bit you chip away, the better your meaning emerges.
The same goes with photography. Consider the photo of Pokhara’s Phewa Tal at the beginning of this article. What makes it interesting? Why does it work? One reason is that there’s very little in it to distract from the main message. The photographer intentionally removed those distracting extras. We can focus on what’s important.
In general, short paragraphs are better than long paragraphs, short sentences are better than long sentences, and short words are better than long words. Please note: I didn’t say “always.”
In my own writing journey, no writing strategy — none — has improved my writing more (or more quickly) than learning to write short focused paragraphs. Once I figured this out, everything changed. Readers began to understand what I was trying to say. I explain what happened in #3 below.
Again, here's the gist: readers don't like unnecessary words. Trying to read wordy writing is like pushing your way through a thick Chitwan jungle.
When most people encounter a long paragraph, they immediately grow tired. Just looking at it makes them lose energy. They often skip long paragraphs. I do.
Here are three big problems — three big blunders — to watch out for.
VS Naipaul writes, “Thou shalt not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong.”
In his May 12 Writing Journey interview, Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit put it this way, “We should write simply and clearly. Writing is not about showing off your vocabulary or craft, but about communicating clearly and well.” Sanjay Upadhya put it even more directly: “When others try to impress, they use big words and often look foolish.”
It's not just that short words are easier to read. They are clearer. Naipaul again: “The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.”
This is not to say never use long words. In some cases, longer words are more accurate or precise. If more accurate, of course use the longer word! But, as George Orwell puts it, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” I love that.
Most sentences are too long. They can be cut in half, trimmed — or both! Short sentences are clearer and easier to read. They are usually more powerful. They carry more punch.
Many people feel that to be sophisticated, they need more words, greater length. They look at short sentences, William Zinsser says, and think, “The sentence is too simple — there must be something wrong with it.” That attitude leads a lot of writers to create paragraphs that are as hard to get through as a dense jungle.
More great advice from George Orwell: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” (Um, George, shouldn't this be “If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it”?)
Sadly, many of my Nepali students follow the opposite approach: “If it is possible to add a word, whether needed or not, always add it. If it's a fancy word, even better. Above all, never cut a long fancy word, no matter how imprecise or irrelevant.”
(Many Americans, I should note, take the same approach.)
VS Naipaul says, “Thou shalt not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.” In my view, a little longer is fine, but you get the idea.
Recently, I analyzed one of my essays. I counted the words in every sentence. 1,060 words. 58 sentences. Longest sentence: 66 words. Shortest: two words. Average: 18 words. Again note that some were long, even very long, but most were short.
My all-time favorite saying about conciseness comes from Josh Billings, a funny 19th century American writer: “There’s a great power in words — if you don’t hitch too many of them together.”
The longer your sentences, the weaker they become. The shorter, the stronger. Fewer words, more power.
Learning to write short, focused paragraphs changed my life. I used to write long paragraphs, really long ones. When I learned to cut material so that readers could actually see what I was trying to say, the quality of my writing jumped up three notches.
Before this, I had pretty good ideas, but they weren't getting through. Readers would get lost in the details and extra words. They couldn't see the forest because of all the trees. Once I recognized this, I could fix it easily. Improvement came quickly.
My problem wasn't that I thought longer was better. My problem came from feeling I had collected lots of notes and other material so I just had to put it all in. To gather all those notes and ideas, I had climbed mountains, used huge amounts of energy, lost buckets of sweat, and even shed blood. I couldn't not use all the wonderful words and details and thoughts I had struggled to collect. One way or another, all those words were going in the paragraph.
Later, I realized another reason I wrote long paragraphs: I didn't like deciding what was important and what wasn't. Concise writing requires making tough decisions. You need to pick your most important points — and not just throw a lot out there and hope readers will decide. You need to make priorities. That’s difficult but necessary.
Eventually, I saw that I was writing to meet my needs, not the needs of the reader. I should have been asking, what will help the reader get the point? The answer: short focused paragraphs.
Newspaper writers know about short paragraphs. They write extremely short paragraphs. But other groups, especially academics, tend to write long. I used to be in that latter group.
As I was working on my PhD, a professor pointed out the benefits of short paragraphs. I looked at mine: all were long, dense and often confusing. Changing this brought a big difference. I tell the full story of what happened in my Mitho Lekhai video (in Nepali): The Paagal Professor's Powerful Paragraphs.
The main point is not actually shortness. It's focus. A paragraph should address one single topic or idea. A long paragraph can be ok if it's focused. But most are not. Short paragraphs force you to be focused. You have no choice. For newspapers, one to four sentences. For reports and academic writing, on average, four to eight sentences, sometimes a little longer. For academic writing and reports, put the main point in the paragraph's first sentence. This is another big blunder. Many people bury their main point deep into the paragraph. That is hard on readers who want to know the paragraph’s main mission early.
Again, learning short focused paragraphs improved my writing dramatically, so much that I feel it was a major turning point in my career.
Less is more. Make every word count.
In addition to making your sentences short, try a “super short” sentence: a sentence of just one to four words. It will grab your reader's attention.
On the day I was writing this article, a Kathmandu Post headline caught my eye: “Oli tells Nepal faction to withdraw support to Deuba. Dissidents refuse.” What a powerful headline. Whatever your political leanings, that two-word sentence grabs your attention.
Here are some other marvelous examples:
When I entered a new land in the summer of 2015, I often found myself asking, “Where in the world am I?” I was 12 time zones away from my home. But time was not the only thing that confused me: Most ordinary daily practices seemed downright irrational. Everything seemed so weird: The students in sleeveless tops and half pants (even on campus!); people’s obsession with icy water, even during the frigid winter; the ridiculous number of national flags almost everywhere; hilarious TV commercials; and the measurement of temperatures in Fahrenheit, distances in miles, and weight in pounds. I felt overwhelmed.
Kunti Adhikary, ‘Multiple Realities’, The Kathmandu Post, February 10, 2018.
Wildlife habitat in Nepal is constantly under threat due to expanding human settlements and deforestation for agriculture and mega infrastructure projects across the country. Habitat loss compounded by fragmentation has not only resulted in a decline in the wildlife population, but it has also increased the rate of human-wildlife conflict, often resulting in death and injury to people. But killing an elephant, or any wildlife for that matter, is not a solution. It’s outrageous because the elephants are not the problem. We are.
‘Give them space’, The Kathmandu Post, December 17, 2020.
After all, according to the “natural” order of Nepali society, or “Nepali” social norms, it is evident that women address men as “tapai.” They may explain their use of timi to me as indicating “closeness”, but this familiarity is on their terms and preserves their status – they are casual with me, but I must remain “respectful” to them. I’ve not been asked if I feel “closeness.” I feel hierarchy."
Seira Tamang, ‘Resist hierarchy, ‘ladies’,’ The Record, July 30, 2019
You can find a couple more examples of super short sentences — and short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs — in my article ‘Unnatural disasters’ in Republica.
Again, my take-home message: The shorter, the better. Chhoto ra mitho. Less is more.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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