C.S. Lewis on Brevity

February 17, 2021 — 15 Comments

Regular readers of Mere Inkling are accustomed to posts that require a bit of thinking.* This one will be different.

I opted for a simpler topic, wedged as this post will be, between two more thought-provoking subjects. Avoiding verbosity is a worthwhile goal. Admittedly, it’s harder for some of us to reach, than for others who are innately succinct.

I will simply say, to promote clear communication it is necessary to (1) strip away all extraneous words, and (2) ensure that we know what the words we use mean to our hearers or readers. (This is especially true when “preaching.”)

In terms of the meanings of words, C.S. Lewis describes the value of commonly shared or “learned” language. If a word, say “baptism,” or even something simpler, such as “tree,” meant the same thing to all—communication could be much more concise.

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 (“Before We can Communicate”).

[Such learned language] can say in ten words what popular [common] speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original.” Alas, because we lack that united vocabulary, this we must just put up with.”

Still, Lewis would argue: let’s please keep the unnecessary extraneous explanation to a bare minimum. (It would be an easy task to whittle that sentence down, wouldn’t it? Let’s try.)

C.S. Lewis says using the fewest necessary words is (usually) best.

[If you would like to read a slightly more developed essay on this subject,
search no farther than “Brevity & Clear Communication,” which was published in 2017.]


* I was tempted to write “a bit of cognitive interaction,” but realized I’d be undermining my purpose for this simple post in my very first sentence!

15 responses to C.S. Lewis on Brevity

  1. 

    Enjoyed this post, and all the linked ones. So fascinating. And that Shakespearean meme is worth a second of “cognitive interaction” or two, especially right after Valentine’s Day! :>)

    • 

      Glad you enjoyed the post and links. When I made the graphic I couldn’t resist using that particular font for the top line, even though the “if” is a bit difficult to read.

      Happy belated Valentine’s Day.

  2. 

    Achieving conciseness is an arduous process. Someone has said writing is 1% composition and 99% elimination–or something like that. Very true!

    • 

      All this time I thought the 99% was perspiration. Oh wait, that goes with 1% inspiration.

      I believe the vast majority of (good) writers would agree with you Nancy… that the lack of competent editing leads to many literary failures.

  3. 

    “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter” (Blaise Pascal). That is one of my favorite quotes on this subject. It takes time to realize how redundant and repetitive one’s writing can be.

  4. 

    Rob,

    Short and sweet. It truly is an art form.

    Thanks,

    Gary

  5. 

    I read once that all good communication is like bridge building. The effort in proposing an idea is met by a listener, with a bridge formed between two opposing banks of the river. Verbosity becomes a misguided effort to do the work of the listener.

    • 

      That’s an interesting analogy, and possesses merit.

      Verbosity is frequently used to (attempt to) do the hearer’s work.

      In my case, I prefer to think my digressions are normally offered to more thoroughly explain subjects with which some readers would not be familiar. Case in point, check out the footnotes in my “next” post which I’ll be adding today.

      Also, when discussing complex theological matters, subject to common confusion (often related to semantics), I tend to be wordier.

      Thanks for the comment, Don.

  6. 

    That’s why I take pictures and hope they are worth 1000 concise words.

  7. 

    Ha! Yes! If you had written as you normally do, I think you’d have to intentionally aim for an obvious avoidance of your subject.

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