Sometimes Less is More

shorter

As an undergrad, I was a teaching assistant for a writing class designed for computer science majors. While some of the students were very good writers, many hated writing and really struggled with the class. Most of the assignments were short—one paragraph of ten typed lines—and we deducted points if the assignment was too long.

One student in particular complained when he lost points for writing something twice as long as the assignment required. He argued that he had done more than the required amount of work and should be rewarded. What he didn’t understand was that when it comes to writing, longer isn’t always better, and shorter is often harder.

It’s not hard to see where the longer-is-better mindset comes from. Most class assignments have minimum page requirements, not maximum page requirements. But some of the hardest writing you’ll ever do will be making something long shorter. You’ll need to fit the synopsis for your entire book into a query letter. You’ll have to convince the school of your dreams that you’re a great applicant in a one-page statement of purpose. You’ll have to squeeze your hilarious story into a 140 character tweet. Short is hard!

Writing something long forces you to use a lot of words, but writing something short forces you to use them economically. That’s what makes it difficult. In shorter pieces, each word needs to be working for its keep, and you need to be judicious in knowing which words are doing the work most effectively.

The good news is that learning to write under tight length constraints will improve your longer works too. You’ll learn to choose words that get a lot of bang for their buck, and that will make you a better writer.

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