Director of English Mr Stephen Woods
One of the hilarious observations to which English (and other) teachers are often treated is the old one about marking: ‘Don’t you just stand at the top of the stairs and throw all the papers in the air?’ The observer usually goes on to suggest that the higher grades are allocated to the weightier submissions — the ones that fall the furthest. The problem here is not the obvious one of comedic unoriginality, but of physics. If the stair-toss method was, in fact, employed (oh, how my weekends would improve!), the tomes that thud solidly onto the bottom stairs might actually attract far lower grades than those that wafted to a feathery rest on the top step or landing. Why? Because writers who can use fewer words and pages to do the same job, are better writers. The ‘secret’ of good communication is summed up bluntly but accurately in the oft-quoted words of Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist: ‘the economy, stupid’.
There is nothing new in this assertion, but there is a happy timeliness. Commentators have observed that the immanence of texting and tweeting has had two profoundly positive — if quite unexpected —effects: a return to the written word as the predominant mode of communication and an impulse towards brevity. When faced with a non-negotiable 140-character limit, tweeters are compelled to keep their messages brief. Granted, there is no inanity limit, but the enforced succinctness of the SMS and Twitter-spheres could well provide our girls with an impetus to use words economically. Being able to express purposes concisely, whether for a Physics EEI, an Art assignment, or an English oral presentation, is a key determinant of school success. The difference, for example, between an A and a B in one of the three Maths B and C criteria, as mandated by the QSA, is that the former is ‘concise’ and the latter isn’t. The ability to communicate economically will stand our girls in good stead in their tertiary and professional lives. The good news, and the focus of the next few hundred words, is that it can be learned.
The first step towards being an economical communicator is attitudinal. Many of our girls are yet to arrive at the realisation that quantity — of hours worked, points covered, words written, or minutes spoken — does not equal quality. I made this point at a parent-teacher night last year, much to the delight of one father, who turned to his daughter and said something like, ‘Haven’t I been telling you for years to get rid of all those excess words?’ Quantity gets in the way of quality. In the most pragmatic of senses, the more we write, the greater scope we give ourselves for errors. In terms of cognitive hygiene, abiding by word and time limits forces us to discern which of our ideas are apposite, and which are superfluous. Editing is not merely stylistic: it is an intellectual process. This ability to discern the textual wheat from the chaff is in part a function of the developing brain, but it is also a skill to be practised.
The second adjustment that needs to be made is an emotional one. In a macabre piece of editing advice, Arthur Quiller-Couch (1916) exhorted writers to look most closely at those passages with which they are most smitten, and then ‘murder your darlings’. His use of ‘darlings’ is apt; many girls protest — shoulders slumped — that they really like the very bits they are being advised to edit out. In How to Write Short, Roy Peter Clark (2013) suggests a more diplomatic way of dealing with our beloved words, sentences, and passages. Rather than homicide, he suggests that we have a conversation with each of them, beginning with the question, ‘do I really need you?’ (123). I would argue that Clark’s question can be sharpened, and made less like a scene from a daytime soap, if it is refocused: ‘Does my reader really need you?’
To ensure our final drafts respond to this question with an emphatic ‘yes’, we need time. Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, Cicero, Blaise Pascal, Martin Luther, and Woodrow Wilson can’t all be wrong. Each of them made witty observations about writing a long piece because they lacked the time to produce a short one. I like the humour of Wilson’s: ‘If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now’ (as cited in O’Toole, 2012). The paradox that brevity is only achieved at length has obvious implications for our students. The passage of time allows us to see our own work dispassionately, and then to prune, lop, or fell judiciously. A schedule (or lack thereof) that leaves little time between first draft and submission limits the objective distance even an experienced writer can bring to bear on their prose. The message for students and those in their editing support-group is clear: get writing early. Once the early start is made, each subsequent drafting should take place when enough time has passed to allow for disinterest. Drafting at too close an interval produces the near-identical iterations that many of our girls submit as evidence of ‘drafting’.
Once the need, disposition and opportunity for prudent economising are in place, effective strategies abound. One of the best is mimicry. Clark (2013) in How to Write Short and Fish (2011) in How to Write a Sentence agree that good examples of concision should be collected and emulated. This is not to say that we want to hear persuasive speeches that begin a la Dickens: ‘Cloning; it is the best of technologies, it is the worst of technologies’, but ‘Cloning; is it the best or worst of technologies?’ is a pretty crisp opening. Clark suggests keeping a scrapbook of any short writing that catches our eye, whether posters, advertisements, or graffiti. Keeping such a collection is hardly onerous in the era of the smartphone camera. A university professor of mine wrote a kind reference for me decades ago, and I have trundled out its beautifully taut opening sentence countless times since then for my own students. This is why we show the girls exemplars from the wider world of writing, from the faculty, and from the girls who have gone before them. Gleaning just one precise phrase, or one word that would replace three of our own, makes that exemplar worthwhile.
Clark (2013) identifies several ‘usual suspects’ (124) that most sentences could do without, and of which many of our girls are unduly fond. Redundancies like ‘personally, I believe’, ‘shouted loudly’, or ‘so as to’, lose no meaning when trimmed to ‘I believe’, ‘shouted’, or ‘to’. Intensifiers like ‘really’, ‘very’, ‘actually’, and the sadly-abused ‘incredibly’ are more often clutter than nuance. In imaginative writing, many young writers struggle to be direct; their characters live in arrested worlds where they ‘almost’ cry, and feel ‘somewhat’ lonely. These same characters also struggle to ever complete an action, as they ‘begin’ to walk across the room, or ‘start’ to drive away. Obviously, all of these qualifications could go. Often, in laudable attempts to be descriptive, our students resort to heavily adjectival and adverbial constructions of this ilk: ‘As I began to walk hesitantly and somewhat unsteadily along the incredibly uneven and treacherous patchwork footpath’ where ‘I stumbled along the rough path’ would do as well. Adverbs and adjectives are useful, but the more often we use them, the less impact they have.
Being economical with words takes practice, and it takes two. The best and best-known writers and speakers all have editors, and our students should too. The teacher’s role here is a given, but friends, parents and other supporters can also lend a constructively critical eye, because we are all readers and listeners, and, as such, the best judges of whether the message is delivered economically. In the long run, economy of expression is not about school, university or Twitter word-limits; it is about being able to deliver a message that will cut through the ever-increasing information clutter. This is something that will help our girls long after their last school assignment has flown from a teacher’s hands and wafted to a feathery rest on the top step.
Clark, R. P. (2013). How to Write Short. New York: Little Brown.
Fish, S. (2011). How to Write a Sentence. New York: Harper Collins.
Quiller-Couch, A. (1916). On the Art of Writing. Retrieved from About.com on February 1, 2014: http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/murderquiller.htm
O’Toole, G. (2012). If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter. Retrieved from Quote Investigator on February 1, 2014: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/
Published 13 February 2014