Image: something I wrote recently. If you’re a sharp-eyed reader of the blog and think you know what it is, make a guess in the Replies. Although the only prize is my admiration.
Nearly every source of writing advice agrees on one thing: brevity is good. My own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, is no exception; I devote an entire chapter to brevity. There are good reasons for this. Longer papers ask more of their readers’ limited time budgets and seem, likely as a direct result, to have less citation impact. Journals have limited space and would rather publish more papers than longer ones*. In general, shorter texts and simpler sentences are easier to understand. And most writers need to shorten their first drafts – and most find this a challenge (as Blaise Pascal noted in his famous letter, “I’ve made this letter longer than usual; I haven’t had time to make it shorter**”).
But just in the last year or two, I’ve backed off my fanaticism about brevity just a bit. (As an editor, I’ve even recommended – twice – that authors lengthen their papers a little. I expect they fell off their chairs.) What led me to change my tune, even if only by a fraction of a semitone, was thinking about Edward Tufte’s pithy summary of ideal figure design: that a good figure gives the reader “the most ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space”. I realized that I’d been paying fetishizing “least ink” and “smallest space” while losing track a bit of “shortest time” – which may be the most important thing of all. Clear, easy communication (which is what makes “shortest time” possible) should always be our goal, and that doesn’t always mean the shortest text.
It’s easy to become mesmerized by “least ink”. Scientists love data, and “least ink” (and “smallest space”) are easy to quantify. For text, word processing software provides word count data – Microsoft Word even puts it right in the corner of the window where you can watch the count creep up as you type. Journal length limits are usually expressed as word counts, too. Response to Reviews letters nearly all need to signal compliance with a request to cut length, and word count data make that easy. But focusing on word count incentivizes the wrong behaviour. I’ve caught myself, more than once, replacing two short words with one long one, and feeling proud of myself***.
The speed and ease of reader understanding are, in contrast, very hard to quantify, or even to know about. That’s partly because “understanding” and “ease” are inherently squishy. It’s also because when we’re writing, we don’t have direct access to what our readers are going to think. As writers we need two tools. First is a bag of tricks for what I call “reader simulation”: forgetting all our insider knowledge to see the text as a reader will. Second is willing and able reviewers whose reactions can stand in for those of our eventual readers. We need to detect those cases where a few extra words would help rather than hinder. After all, it takes much longer for a puzzled reader to read a short sentence twice than for a comfortable one to read a long sentence once.
I don’t want to swing the pendulum back too far. It’s still the case that I see far more manuscripts needing shortening than I see needing lengthening (and this is especially true for my own manuscripts). But when I revise I now find myself looking, amongst the opportunities to chop, for the occasional opportunity to improve by the judicious addition of an extra word or two in the right place. And when I chop, I now try to keep only one eye on the word count, with the other reserved for whether removing a word will make the reader’s job easier or harder. Easier, of course, is what it’s all about – whatever that takes.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) March 13, 2017
*^This constraint is relaxed in online-only journals, but it doesn’t disappear. There are still costs of copy-editing and typesetting that scale with paper length, even if actual storage capacity is too cheap to matter.
**^Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. No, Mark Twain didn’t say this. Pascal seems to have been the first; the quote is from a 1656 letter, one of 18 he wrote addressed to the priests of the Jesuit order but intended to be widely read.
***^Several of the granting agencies I deal with have gotten wise to this, and use character counts instead. Any day now, I’m going to start seeing proposals from Twitter-trained writers packed with emoticons. I can’t wait 😉