Hemingway’s greatest work wasn’t a book. Not For Whom the Bell Tolls. Not even A Farewell to Arms. It was a devastatingly short story. Just six words long, in fact. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A lifetime’s sadness in one sentence.
Most writers really struggle with brevity. Sentences cluttered with unnecessary adjectives; adverbs. My first news editor adored succinctness. “Just use one word, not five.” The writer in me was dubious. But, as usual, he was right. He made me write the NIBs. News in Briefs – 40 words each. It taught me what was important. The who, where, why, what, how. Anything extra, he said, was superfluous.
Today, Twitter takes this to extremes. Everything has to be 140 characters. Nuance, too often, is squeezed out.
Yet shortness doesn’t necessarily equal shallowness. Recently a newspaper set a challenge. Authors were given just 50 words. Easier, perhaps, than half a dozen. Mark Haddon’s told of a demolition. Concrete towers brought down in seconds. Post-war family homes reduced to rubble. Memories of children running down corridors. 1,000-word tales would be less evocative.
Brevity is no easy task though. Just look at the Oscars shorts. All five films nominated are disappointing. One is a funny extended sketch. Another an unsatisfyingly crunched down feature. And the winner is truly awful. (The Shore, starring Ciaran Hinds – don’t.)
Keeping things brief is a struggle. But it is also an art form. And one that should be celebrated. Whether it’s 50 words or six.