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Brevity is key to meaningful writing

John Murray

The English language is astonishing. From 26 simple characters, we’ve arranged the alphabet in over a million ways to create words that convey meaning, express our thoughts and influence others.

These same few building blocks were used by giants of literature like Dickens, Shakespeare or Austen, but their output is as original and unique as they were.

The Greeks used to  play a game of lipograms, where writing was constrained by having to avoid a certain character or group of letters, yet it still had to convey meaning. A number of recent writings have attempted a lipogram, with Mark Dunn’s ‘Ella Minnow Pea’ one that goes to the extreme.

In his fable, the characters that inhabit the fictional island of Nollop are progressively banned from using various letters of the alphabet in both the verbal and written format. Dunn’s writing reflects this constraint with a much vaunted skill. In the latter half of the book, such is the totalitarian rule of the governing council that its inhabitants are only left with 12 letters. Restrictive though this seems, it does focus the mind on choosing the right word.

A similar skill is required for haikus. This popular form of poetry is composed of seventeen syllables arranged in three lines of five, seven and five respectively. A haiku requires great skill to create, yet some can capture no less imagery and beauty than a three-page poem can.

It seems to me that lipograms and haikus are no less challenging than an effective tweet, where brevity and clarity is essential. In the modern world, people need to absorb information as quickly as possible, so short, concise messages can be a powerful and effectual way to engage with your audience.

However, can something so short convey enough meaning to engage with an audience? I’ll leave you to answer that with one of the shortest stories ever written (credited to Ernest Hemmingway):

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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