Brevity & Clear Communication


There is something to be said for brevity. But I won’t belabor that here.

In an essay entitled “Before We Can Communicate,” C.S. Lewis explores the frequently overlooked necessity of using commonly agreed upon definitions. He cites examples where apparent disagreement could be traced to differing assumptions about how others would interpret a given word.

We’ve all experienced that sort of confusion and if emotions become involved in the dispute, it can result in more than simple frustration.

As a military chaplain, working in an extremely diverse and pluralistic environment, I devoted much attention to communicating clearly. As an example, when dealing with “theological matters,” I always inquired into the religious background of the person with whom I was speaking.

I did not do so with the intention of altering an iota of the conversation that followed. I learned early on that the religious training each person received carried with it a sort of doctrinal dictionary, where the words carried particular meaning. One problematic example is “baptism,” which means something quite different for different parts of Christ’s Body. When focusing on communication, the question is not which understanding is most biblical. It is, what does the word mean in its present usage in this conversation.

In Lewis’ essay on communication, he describes something that should be a core skill of every pastor.

What we want to see in every ordination exam is a compulsory paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English. Just turned; not adorned, nor diluted, nor made “matey.”

The exercise is very like doing Latin prose. Instead of saying, “How would Cicero have said that?” you have to ask yourself, “How would my scout or bedmaker have said that?”

Lewis cites multiple benefits from this effort. Foremost among them is the usefulness of a commonly understood vocabulary, which he refers to as “learned language.”

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. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original. And this we must just put up with.

People who know (and love) me, consider me wordy. I confess to the crime. But in my defense, I declare that with misunderstandings resulting from even the simplest conversations, I strive to dispel as thoroughly as possible, all clouds of potential confusion.

A Note on the Future of Mere Inkling

As is natural in dynamic or living things, such as active blogs, change naturally occurs over time. Such drifting, or even radical alteration, is normal. While altering course results from a conscious decision, drift typically takes place subtly, and slowly.

Over the past year or two, the columns posted here at Mere Inkling have grown in length. While this has allowed for deeper exposition of complex subjects, and a more nuanced treatment of C.S. Lewis’ contributions to the ideas discussed, the increased length has had other unhappy consequences.

The first is that it has, I believe, modestly decreased the readership of Mere Inkling. The internet, by its very nature, favors shorter treatments, and that is a simple truism. Combined with our rapidly decreasing attention spans, an online writer must consciously weigh the tradeoffs.

The second reason is that it takes significantly longer to write a more thorough “essay.” Increasing demands on my time have made the “long form” posting more of a hardship.

So, in light of these considerations, it is my desire to return Mere Inkling to its roots. I will endeavor to keep the posts shorter—along the lines of today’s column above this “note.”

I hope this minor reorientation will be welcomed by you, dear member of the Mere Inkling family.

14 thoughts on “Brevity & Clear Communication

    1. That’s very nice of you. I try to write as much as the topic merits. But determining that is something about which there are differences of opinion. Some subjects demand greater discussion, and that will continue to appear here at Mere Inkling.

      However, I guess I’m giving myself permission to write shorter columns… when that is appropriate.

  1. I welcome lengthy posts, and appreciate the research and effort that goes into them. I was informed by another blogger that shorter posts receive more viewings over a short period of time, but the longer posts have greater longevity and readers are more likely to return to them in the long-run. So perhaps they both have their place on a blog. In any case, I enjoy reading your posts, my thanks.

    1. I appreciate your encouragement. I believe your point about longer (meatier) posts possessing greater longevity is correct.

      I’ve shared many observations about Lewis here at Mere Inkling that I never read elsewhere. That’s not to say that I am a great Lewisian scholar, but I don’t simply rehash common knowledge.

      I agree that varying post lengths has its place in a blog. However, the studies I’ve read suggest that avoiding erratic change is essential to establishing a consistent readership.

      1. I’ve certainly learnt new things from reading your blog posts, and via them have been introduced to further scholarship and writers.

        As someone who is also inclined to write longish posts, I’ll take your words as sound advice.

      2. I’m pleased Mere Inkling has led you to new writers and information you were unaware of.

        Yes, we word-lovers do well to attempt to rein in our wordiness. Especially if we hope to be published in traditional venues.

  2. I find your paragraph on clarifying misunderstandings amusing, after discussing brevity. You did defend yourself before launching into it, so it was to be expected.
    Your writings I have read seem just right to me. If you’re looking to popularize, you may have to truncate to a single meme with an inane quote. ;)

    1. “Amusing” is one of my middle names. (At least that’s what my wife and grandchildren think.) I believe humor is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.

      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying Mere Inkling.

  3. Hi Rob,

    You are right on track with the times we are in. People are in a rush, on the go and want quick bites to read. We decided that when we started God Among Geeks on Word Press. Small but meaty bites, more posts, just not super long.

    I pray you get more impact with your great pieces in smaller packages.

    Merry Christmas, brother.


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

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