Word Count: How Brevity Blesses

What about this piece makes me thankful?

Its brevity.

Brevity is a tough delight. It disciplines, tugging out of my clutch the hem of billowy, airborne ideas, all those tendrilling side references, sumptuous metaphors, scintillating footnotes, twinkling asterisks.

Brevity demands I pack that whole scope into a kernel.

One bright, firm kernel.

The problem is that I’m a word-glutton. I balk at brevity. I hunger for 75,000 words to work with —a book, for Hemingway’s sake! —not 750 or 500, which are just perfect for the pieces I’ve linked here, but are so much more difficult that the long form, believe me. I crave pages where I can sprawl spread eagle, face down, drooling across my private prairie of expression.


It’s how I write. It’s how I live.

When writing, I want to say it all. At once. It’s my greatest challenge. I begin with one thought, it blossoms too quickly into 20 pages, and then I agonize for a week, whittling to 200 words. Honestly: 200 words. Can anyone even answer the phone with 200 words?

Yet word counts like those in the articles I’ve linked you to are prime training, excellent toning. They make me write better. I’m forced to trim away my “pretty darlings.” Those are the twirls of a phrase, references to research, curves of storyline, the U-turns into fascinating asides, even the mouth-watering words that, okay, might be gorgeous in isolation, (like under museum glass), but which, in the end, don’t drive home my point. In fact, they veer me and my reader from it.

(Tell the truth, though. Who can resist “pellucid”? or “efflorescence”? or —my heart!— “syzygy”?)

As I said: word-glutton.

And world-glutton. Because living, I also want to do it all. Be it all. At once. At least that used to be the case. I’ve learned the hard way that life stories, like the literal pieces we write, also have a word count — a “moment count,” let’s call it—and that numerical count is a mystery. We call that transience. Admitting this makes all the difference. You reduce to what matters.

But hold on, you say. Reduction feels risky. It’s scary to say a sweeping “no” in order to say a focused “yes.” To trim away the peripheral from the central, the optional from the vital. What you get, though, when you do that in writing is the polished bullet: precision of word, clarity of thought, stinging and ringing and substantial prose. You might even get a masterpiece.

BYU I 1963-66114

(Photo: David Dalton archives ©)

And reduction with living? If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

Brevity reveals genius. It also breeds it. And it happens to be part of what makes mundane stories into poetry or even scripture. In the moment we recognize that the story we are writing with our lives (focused, concentrated, even consecrated) is more than mere meandering, earthbound jangle, that the narrative is bigger than its lined-up words, larger than any string of moments, and moving both from and toward something outside the bounds of brevity, then we’ve really found something. Maybe it is a sacred script we never realized we were writing. Maybe it is our very selves.





13 thoughts on “Word Count: How Brevity Blesses

  1. Melissa, thank you for both beautiful pieces. I agree with you on the genius of brevity in our choices. It really does allow us to focus on what we want to give and accomplish. Happy Thanksgiving.
    And there is brevity in the length of that ledge [your mom?] is sitting on. I’m sure in reality it was not as precarious as it looks. 🙂

    • Lori, and thank you! I’m inching toward the blessings of brevity, albeit late in life, slowly and awkwardly. Inching as awkwardly, yep, as my Mom sitting on the edge (but not really the very edge …I hope…) of the Gooseneck bend in southern Utah. It doesn’t feel as precarious as this photo. But almost.

  2. This reminds me of a talk by Elder Ballard called ‘O Be Wise’. Do you remember it? In sel among about magnifying our church callings he counsels that to innovate often means to simplify.
    Magnifying a calling by simplifying? Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

    I feel like I am on a constant quest to simplify my life. Out latest mantra is that to strip away everything that is not success from our lives. We recently moved and I find myself being choosier than ever before about what I commit to, who I commit to.
    I am also pregnant and found a long time ago that wiht every baby that entes the home, we need less stuff, the baby, tiny as it is has such a big spirit. It will take up as much space as any of us grown beings, and I try to be sensitive to that.

    O I love your writing, Melissa. Brief or lengthy, you are a joy to me.
    Thank you!!

  3. Pingback: How Will You Compose Your Life? | Melissa Writes of Passage

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