Brevity Is Beautiful

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Brevity is my favorite aspect of effective communication. We’re limited creatures, only able to handle a few thoughts at once — make them count!

Concise writing helps us share ideas, but we hamstring ourselves by trying to appear “substantial”. Let’s figure out how to avoid this trap.

Benefits of Brevity

Concise, efficient writing has non-obvious benefits:

We maximize information density.

We can hold about 7 digits in memory. Given limited room, a few powerful thoughts are better than a single dilute one.

What’s better: “x is the sum of two times y and three times z” or “x = 2y + 3z”?

Concise thoughts are more understandable. (By the way, math used to be written in English, as above. Egads.)

We respect the reader.

Long-winded diatribes are about the author: listen to me and look at what I know. Effective communication is about the reader: I’ve distilled hundreds of pages to these essential insights.

Information is everywhere, and I can eventually understand a topic by reading dozens of mediocre books. But time is limited — give me the source that communicates the most understanding in the least time.

We communicate raw thought.

Writing isn’t about words, it’s about recreating ideas:

  • Idea in my head => words are written => words are read => idea in your head

With good writing we hear the author’s voice, not our own thoughts deciphering their message. The ideal of communicating raw ideas appears in programming, design, art and even humor (“Brevity is the soul of wit”).

Obstacles to Brevity

If brevity is so desirable, why don’t we do it?

Schoolchild Guilt (aka the 10-page paper)

School assignments ask for pages of text, not ideas. The teacher really wants an essay with 3 meaningful insights, but that’s tough to specify. So instead he asks for a 10-pager, hoping some ideas are buried inside.

The assignment is easily gamed: take a few scattered thoughts, bump up the font and margins, and tada, we have 10 pages. We know this isn’t what the teacher wants, but it satisfies the letter of the law.

An analogy: A king secretly wants treasure. He asks his subjects to bring him a ton of dirt each, hoping for gems inside. They do, and on average there’s a single gem in each pile — but the king spends hours clawing through the dirt.

One day a peasant sees a lone gem on the beach. But because the king asked for dirt (he’ll be punished if he only brings a handful of “stuff”), he buries the gem in an enormous pile and delivers that to the king, who spends hours trying to find the jewel.

Is that what the king wanted? We writers are the peasants that bring material for you to sift through!

Getting Our Money’s Worth

Thought experiment: you see two reference books, one at 100 pages and the other at 200. Do you wonder if the smaller book could be concise and well-written, or do you immediately assume “bigger is better” and reach for the tome?

And that’s why publishers pad their books — we reward those with the most words, not the best ones. It’s akin to judging a portrait by how much paint was used, or a song by its length.

Brevity and Substance

My “brevity” means economy of words, saying what’s necessary and no more. “Necessary” could be a paragraph or 50 pages; either is fine.

The key is delivering gems, not dirt. When writing, you know what you’re providing :).

I still struggle with accepting that it’s ok, nay good, to share a single, concise thought if you think it’s a gem. There’s no need to pad to make it seem “substantial”.

Does anyone think the 278-word Gettysburg address isn’t meaty enough? Should Lincoln have stretched it out a bit?

Expert’s Guilt (The sky is not blue)

Brevity’s enemy is an armada of “helpful” information. Consider this: is the sky blue?

Well, it’s black at night. And orange at sunset/sunrise. And grey when cloudy. In fact, it’s more likely to be non-blue than blue!

My goodness, I could never say “The sky is blue” without a 3-page disclaimer, lest an expert meteorologist have my head.

No. Writing riddled with caveats is like the “Are you sure? Really sure?” dialogs we hate in software: yes, yes, we get it!

Models are simplifications, we all know this: assume an intelligent reader and don’t encumber your writing to satisfy every critic. Corner cases are exactly that, and should live away from the main text.

Examples of Brevity

I learn by reflecting on great examples — what makes them tick?

Computers and Programming

Ruby has wonderful shortcuts for everyday tasks.

value = parameter || getValue() || "default"

Which means “try to use parameter, then try getValue(), and if all else fails assign a default”. Ruby was the first language I felt I was reading without notational cruft getting in the way.

Kernighan and Ritchie’s The C Programming Language is the gold standard of technical manuals. Concise and useful, it has no desire to satisfy some publisher’s pagecount requirement: “C is not a big language, and it is not well served by a big book.”

Don’t Make Me Think! is an excellent usability guide. The title is the summary: keep things brainlessly easy. The book expands with examples, yet remains brief.

The unix command line (“cat foo.txt | sort | uniq -c | sort -rn”) is wonderfully concise and powerful: it’s hard to express the above more simply (output a file, sort the lines, count the unique ones, and sort again by that count in descending order).

Mathematics

As we saw with English vs. arithmetic, expressive notation helps us focus on the idea being conveyed.

Consider the difference between decimal and Roman numerals: how can you use math when it takes 5 minutes to decode MCMXCVII times XLII? Decimal notation is one of our greatest discoveries.

Quotes

Why do we love quotes? They are distilled thoughts! Great quotes help us experience an idea without getting lost in verbiage.

Some favorites:

  • “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” –Blaise Pascal (It’s easier to plop down dirt than to dig through and pull out the gems)

  • “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” –William Strunk Jr. (Efficiency is universally appreciated)

Economy of Motion

Great athletes and musicians are efficient. They move less and waste less than the rest of us, and do more with the same amount of time. Concise thoughts require less mental energy to understand.

Headlines

Top 10 lists grab our attention. Why? They imply someone has found the gems: we sifted through dozens of items and are bringing you the best. Unfortunately, these headlines have been abused to mean “Here are 10 random things”.

Cheatsheets

Cheatsheets are pure gems, going from A to B without distraction. The key is knowing the background of your audience. A physics cheatsheet is great for reference, not learning.

Final Thoughts

Reflection helps develop a learning philosophy. I discovered that my fear of not having enough substance was based on measuring dirt. Brainstorming, writing down ideas, and leaving the essentials is more than ok — it’s my ideal.

Remember: is our goal to satisfy a length requirement, impress with our vocabulary, or communicate effectively? Do readers a favor and give ‘em your best gems.

Other Posts In This Series

  1. How to Develop a Mindset for Math
  2. Developing Your Intuition For Math
  3. Brevity Is Beautiful
  4. Learning To Learn: Embrace Analogies
  5. Learning To Learn: Pencil, Then Ink
  6. Intuition, Details and the Bow/Arrow Metaphor
  7. Finding Unity in the Math Wars
  8. Why Do We Learn Math?
Kalid Azad loves sharing Aha! moments. BetterExplained is dedicated to learning with intuition, not memorization, and is honored to serve 250k readers monthly.

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39 Comments

  1. @T Rose: Thanks Mr. Rose! Yeah, the paper length requirement (vs. idea requirement) always bothered me.

    @Raghuraman: You’re welcome.

    @MS: It’s one of the hardest things to resist — you learn something, and want to share every detail about it :).

  2. Always had problems padding out essays. Why make it 2000 words when you can convey the same ideas in 1000 words.

    k.i.s.s. – keep it simple stupid
    k.i.s.s. – keep it short stupid

  3. You can shorten the command line example.

    sort foo.txt | uniq -c | sort -rn

    I loved this line: “Writing isn’t about words, it’s about recreating ideas”. It reminds me of the “Language” section from “Design Principles Behind Smalltalk”.

  4. Most of what I wrote under “10 page requirements” was crap, and I can’t even remember what crap because I took it from Google :P

  5. Wonderful write up. I agree with every point(but to be honest I feel a bit silly now :) ) But still, thanks so much for the great insight. I’ll remember it whenever I write next.

  6. @steve: I like it! Exactly, asking for a “Word count” doesn’t make sense — ask for an idea count!

    @Eric: Thanks, I had considered that but I prefer the explicit “cat” since it makes it easier to insert new commands (i.e. you want mycommand before the sort, now you have to remove foo.txt and feed it to mycommand… and if mycommand doesn’t take a filename (just stdin), you need to do a cat anyway).

    I haven’t come across that book, it looks interesting! Yeah, it’s neat thinking about communication one level higher than the medium itself.

    @Jake: Glad you liked it! :)

    @ajooy: Awesome, glad it helped. New friends always welcome, heh.

    @Camilo: Yep, writing with an eye towards pagecounts makes takes you away from quality.

    @Charu: Thanks! Yes, sometimes I write these posts so I have explicit instructions to myself :).

  7. Brevity, I could see in my most of my friends slang. Words like “Yo”, “Howdy”, “Wassup” for things that are used to express wishes.
    This doesnt make people confused. Or people understand it clearly.

    But in terms of code, not all people like brevity or not every one aware of it or not everyone accepts it ( Company’s own coding standards )

    I’ve written code so concise, but still I was told to expand it.

    
    var validName = !name.isBlank() && !name.containsSpecialChar()
    

    I was told to rewrite as

    
    if ( !name.isBlank() && !name.containsSpecialChar() )
    {
        validName = TRUE
    }
    else
    {
       validName = FALSE
    }
    

    - My Mind Leaks

  8. @Mind: Yes, sometimes there are conflicting goals around readability and maintainability — brevity is good, but whitespace can be helpful too :). In this case, separating the conditions allows you to assign multiple related properties based on one test, or have custom logic (i.e. return early if invalid, etc.). A lot of this is a matter of design style though.

  9. @khalid: Yes, I agree that I’m not opposing the styling concepts. But I would like to emphasize that for the sake of styling, we shouldn’t be. Coz, that piece of code sets only one property :-).

  10. Kick ass explanation, bro.

    I could send you a text file of one my recent summarizes so that you may read and probably be inclined enough to post it in your website since it is mainly about language, and methods of extrapolation said subject.

    (Made an article about English. Will send .txt if interested. Permission granted to publish it here, if laudable enough.)

  11. @Anon: Thanks for the note! Currently I’m not doing guest posts, but I’m happy to give feedback on the article if you send it along. I’m still working out a good way to have a reader contribution area for the site :).

  12. Well stated. Recommended: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

    It’s time to present The Lifetime Achievement Award for Bad Writing. The envelope please!

    And the winners are: Academic Journals, where oracles of obfuscation peddle their padded piffle as if it truly represented deep insight.

  13. @Millard: I can’t say I disagree :). Sometimes official writing tries to sound important by obfuscating the message, using 2-dollar words, etc.

  14. This is one of my favorite posts! I love the quote by Pascal. I think about it every time I finish writing an email to someone.

  15. @Jeff: Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, brevity is one of those subtle things you only notice when it’s gone :).

  16. This discussion makes me reflect on information theory and Claude Shannon’s work regarding the mathematical minimum amount of data required to communicate a message. There is a lot of data tht cn b rmvd from most messages without impacting the information content of the message. Thus we now have mp3′s and HD movies on our cell phones. Thanks Claude!

  17. @Dinakarr: Agreed — if you don’t own the final result, sometimes the effort is in convincing the client it’s “ok”.

  18. I really enjoyed this read. One thing that struck me was the little emphasis on why teachers ask for lengthy reports or why, at some companies, more verbose code is preferred: Experience & Knowledge.

    The act of writing in length helps to expand a vocabulary (i.e., you have used the word “whether” 6 times– try something new).

    The act of programming allows you to become a better programmer (for the most part ;]).

    For example:

    words = %w(“some”,”list”,”of”,”words”)
    —- Example 1 (harder to read “like English”)
    string = words * ” “
    —- Example 2 (easier to read because the asterisk is replaced by it’s action)
    string – words.join(” “)

    They have the same effect. But, the expression reads very differently.

    I guess I’m looking for a a reference to how being concise only works when both communicators are (a) well versed in the common language and (b) understanding what is trying to be achieved.

    Just my 2 cents. Really liked the article.

  19. Its really very nice..kisses!! But hope to see more topics regarding communication skills in future..

  20. A lot of non-brevity is because the way we communicate naturally (in person) uses numerous channels at once, eg body language, intonation, and the actual words. Studies show that the actual words convey only about 7% of the information sent, AND that words are often disbelieved because they are so often used as lies. Think about it: when your girlfriend is upset, and you ask her what’s wrong, and she says, “nothing,” you know this is untrue; she’s probably mad at YOU for something you didn’t even know you did.

    You are probably also aware of something called a “flamewar”, especially with Facebook. this is when a text-only conversation erupts into an argument, usually a very angry argument, and is almost always caused because one person misunderstood what the other was saying and assumed insult. A huge argument, filled with insults and hurt feelings results, and often the people involved get banned, even if they were right.

    You probably also have seen in the news where someone said something perfectly innocent, like describing a bad situation that can only be made worse as being a quagmire. Frex, Vietnam was a quagmire. However, recently someone wanting to use a word other than quagmire used a synonym for it: tar-baby. And guess what? Someone who wanted to take offense did so, blew it all out of proportion, and now we have things like “political correctness” in an effort to protect ourselves from over-sensitive idiots who are in reality passive-aggressive bullies (but that’s for a different day).

    The point is, context matters, and in text, you can’t convey context with body language or intonation. You often can’t even convey it with emphasis (italics or all-caps) for fear someone will accuse you of shouting and thereby miss your point.

    The second big reason (and this will be much more brief) is because some of us crave clarity. Omitting description leaves room for multiple interpretations. When we’re trying to communicate things, multiple interpretations are usually NOT desired (unless we’re con artists, and then we do want our victim to misunderstand what we really want).

    If I say “the asteroid is as big as a house”, that’s not very helpful. One listener may think of a small house, another may think of a large one. Who knows what the speaker actually intended?

    So yes, many a time, we do inflate our explanations in order to make ourselves more important, but also many times that extra explanation IS important to conveying the meaning. (And in this case, it DOES prove how much more important I am. :) )

  21. @Anon: Thanks for the comment :). I agree, for human / personal communication, brevity may not be the best bet (i.e., there’s a lot of subtext in speeches, persuasion, etc.). For technical/non-fiction communication, succinct clarity is usually best.

  22. Thank you for your post. I really enjoyed reading it. You are absolutely right saying that brevity is beautiful. I consider this topic is extremely important for all mankind…

  23. Really struck a chord!
    Especially the reference to translation.
    I learned sign language in High School with the goal of becoming an interpreter at my church. I picked up the language fairly quickly, but the art of interpretation took a lot more time and a lot more practice. It all clicked when I saw a huge revelation: everything is translation. It’s not just Sign to English, or English to Spanish. It is also when two native English speakers talk in English. As a matter of fact there are two translations:
    1) I have an idea in my head and translate it to words.
    2) You hear the words and translate it to an idea.

    The frustrating part is that we can never really convey the idea directly. We can only talk about the idea. We build a bridge from our consciousness to the idea, our words are that bridge. If we are skilled linguists/bridge builders then hopefully we’ve built a structure that others will recognize; a structure that will withstand vigorous use by others. In the end the degree to which the other has cognition of our idea depends largely on his ability to navigate our bridge, not just our ability to build it.

    Excelsior,
    Eric

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