Is More Better?

everettThat’s a trick question. More of some things certainly is better . . . more peace, more compassion. But more—even of good things—can sometimes become too much.

Case in point: words.

I continue to frustrate one of my critique group friends because I write “like a historian rather than a journalist.” The distinction being:

Journalist – Just the facts, please.
Historian – Lover of descriptions, details, esoterica, and trivia.

Guilty as charged.

C.S. Lewis commends the literary virtue of brevity. The following passage is found in his aptly named essay, “Before We Can Communicate.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity. It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred.

Last year marked the 150th Anniversary of one of the world’s most famous speeches. Not only Americans are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It has become a monument to succinctness and power.

Rereading it recently I began to wonder about the other speech delivered at the event . . . the two hour oration delivered by Edward Everett, one of the era’s most highly regarded public speakers.*

The journalists and audience at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery were extremely impressed by Everett’s presentation, and surprised by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks.

Following the event, both men lauded each other’s message. Lincoln responded to Everett’s note which praised him for the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of his remarks. Everett said, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure. Of course I knew Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it which transcended my expectation. The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the States, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers, surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.

I tracked down an online copy of Everett’s Gettysburg speech. I’ve skimmed it, and it is rather interesting. With the course of the war still undetermined at the time it was presented, it is easy to see how its stirring words could inspire an already war-weary nation. As he elaborates on the efforts of the Confederates to establish a new nation, he begs for patience. “Pardon me, my friends, for dwelling on these wretched sophistries.” Sophistries indeed.

The speech offers a partisan analysis of the entire course of the war up to that time. International readers of Mere Inkling may find the references to other countries interesting. He describes “civil wars” in England, Germany, Italy and France. Since he spoke during an era when Italy was still disunited, allow me to quote that portion of the speech.

In Italy, on the breaking up of the Roman Empire, society might be said to be resolved into its original elements–into hostile atoms, whose only movement was that of mutual repulsion. Ruthless barbarians had destroyed the old organizations, and covered the land with a merciless feudalism. As the new civilization grew up, under the wing of the Church, the noble families and the walled towns fell madly into conflict with each other; the secular feud of Pope and Emperor scourged the land; province against province, city against city, street against street, waged remorseless war with each other from father to son, till Dante was able to fill his imaginary hell with the real demons of Italian history.

So ferocious had the factions become, that the great poet-exile himself, the glory of his native city and of his native language, was, by a decree of the municipality, condemned to be burned alive if found in the city of Florence. But these deadly feuds and hatreds yielded to political influences, as the hostile cities were grouped into States under stable governments; the lingering traditions of the ancient animosities gradually died away, and now Tuscan and Lombard, Sardinian and Neapolitan, as if to shame the degenerate sons of America, are joining in one cry for a united Italy.

For those who are interested, this paragraph from Everett’s speech is only fifty-five words shorter than the entire Gettysburg Address.

Of course, just as being loquacious does not guarantee irrelevance, neither does brevity ensure quality.

The key is using the right number of words. That will vary from person to person.

In the twenty-first century, though, a good rule of thumb is to follow the example of Lincoln rather than his speechifying colleague.

* Everett had a prolific political career. It included: U.S. House of Representatives, Governor of Massachusetts, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator. Oh, and he was also President of Harvard University, a job that probably included at least as much politics as his previous endeavors.

16 thoughts on “Is More Better?

  1. Students used to ask how long does it have to be? Until it’s all said – and said well.
    In sales I was warned if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, then you don’t have a clear idea.
    Poetry, now is rich concise speech: best words in best order. No wonder poetry is difficult and few succeed.
    And rambling on, I’ll stop now.

  2. It’s the brevity and factuality of the whole work that dims the house lights for the esoterica and gives them room to dance.
    Remember The Phantom Tollbooth. The Wicked Which was in charge of helping people choose words and became so obsessed with brevity that she reduced her advice to “Shh.” She was jailed for it.

    1. Interesting references, but I’m handicapped by never having read The Phantom Tollbooth. I see they actually made an actual motion picture out of it in 1970!

    2. Only had time to skim through the 90 minute film, but stumbled upon this delightful exchange:

      “I never knew words could be so confusing.”

      “Only confusing when you use a lot to say a little.”

  3. My first love was English lit and creative writing, but I also took journalism in high school and was the editor of the school paper for one semester my senior year. So the journalist side of me is constantly editing the creative writing side of me! I probably just come across as having a multiple personality disorder! :)

    1. Funny. I actually got a B.A. in Editorial Journalism, so I was trained to write for newspapers. Didn’t find that as satisfying as writing essays, etc. Like you, I’m sure I come across on some occasions as having the disorder to which you refer.

  4. Grew up with the Phantom Tollbooth movie. It’s worth watching, although the modernist’s worship of education is prominent.
    How lovely to see that particular Lewis quote. I’d just read it and about shouted with delight. I’ve known for years it’s not possible to match the KJV for brevity, and even it can’t match the originals. As our vocabulary shrinks, the number of words must grow.
    It’s also nice to think through these things as a writer. Lots of people tell bloggers to never use more than 600 words per post. But many topics can’t be decently covered in such a small space.
    The axiom of making each word count fits far better!

    1. That movie reeks of the era of film making that I find hard to stomach. (Along with television of the period.) I’m not sure which qualities tend to alienate me… some sense of it being camp or gauche, I think. Film and tv from before, and after, seems to possess a different essence, and share more in common.

  5. Pingback: C.S. Lewis on Brevity « Mere Inkling Press

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