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Updated: Jun 7, 2020

BREVITY is the soul of wit. He might have said, "tedium obscures the point." It does. It will. It is a thing we learned from Tyndale—the small peculiar art of having, cultivating, and finally making a point. This is, or should be, item #1 in the writer's catechism. The shy, fabulous, satisfying, all-knowing point.

Shakespeare's genius is pucklike/puckish (a venerable adjective). He puts a lesson in tedium in the mouth of tedium itself, in the image of a meddlesome old man of preening hyperbole and weak hams.

My liege, and madam, to expostulate What majesty should be, what duty is, Why day is day, night night, and time is time, Were nothing but to waste night, day and time. Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief . . . —HAMLET, 2.2.86-92

In this passage, the poet could have omitted the first six lines and still said what he (or the old man) came to say. Or could he? Did he? He could have, at the expense of irony, made his point sooner, in four words instead of forty-seven. But, alas, the very difference is what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, and the old man the old man. Tedium as a weapon against itself.

If irony is not the soul of wordcraft, it should be (which is, in itself, ironic).

To be brief takes time. To do so with precision, instruction, and charm takes a lot of time. Compression is as essential to the long form [books] as it is to the short [articles, blog posts, songwriting], and for the same reasons. Every line is, or should be, reduced to its lowest common denominator, purged of excess, creating the illusion of space. Only then would any ornament make sense.

Every word counts.


THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS is a great example of this Tyndale/Shakespeare conciseness. You can read it at a crawl and it is still well under two minutes, proving that the short form has magnificent punch. Being short, I suppose it has to. And that is what we are after, is it not? Punch? Magnificence? Pow? That is what I am after when I read most anything. Or write most anything. Words have punch, and in all weight classes: bantam, feather, welter, light, middle, and heavyweight. They have stamina, mass, muscularity, velocity, impact, cunning, audacity, movement. THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS went through revision after revision, round after round, polish upon polish, to say a world of things in as few lines as possible.


It is a word Tyndale used often, as did Shakespeare. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pith as “the innermost or central part of a thing; the essential or vital part; the spirit or essence; the core, the nub.” Of a plant, it is “the soft internal tissue.” That is what your reader wants, what they ask of you. They want the center, the soul of a thing, the thing that haunts it. Once you have found it for yourself, give it what language it demands then leave it alone. Let it speak. It knows its own speech and always has the best words. Like brevity, the voice you hear, or think you hear, that spirit or essence can, must, and will be elusive. It is its nature to be elusive. Brevity doesn't say it all. Not that it can't. It just won't. It keeps you in pursuit (the soul of charm). Dazzle, the authentic kind, is neither easy nor cheap.

The short form has its challenges, just like its long-winded long-form sibling, the book. Both take time. In a letter, taking time to lament its own length, thus making it longer, Blaise Pascal wrote, "if I'd had the time I could have made it shorter." It is a lesson worth the time it takes to learn it. I will continue this theme. Brevity is a topic that, like all great ironies, will take some time to deliver. Like this post. At just under seven hundred words, if I was smarter, I might have been able to say it all in just under three-fifty.

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