Writing short

My last book was with someone who’s an ER doctor. Subsequently, he asked if I would edit something he was putting together with papers from other doctors. It was unintelligible drivel. Oh, I could figure out what it was saying, but it was just onanistic parading of one’s vocabulary to no good effect. I told him I could eventually turn it into English, but I didn’t think he’d like it. He said no, he’d do it, thanks.

There’s a tendency in medicine, academia, and government to try to make things really, really fancy, purely for the reason that you CAN, which doesn’t impress me at all. You’re supposed to admire the puissant prose of the person who put it together, but it fails in its ability to actually communicate. FWIW, gov’t agency PowerPoint slides also have a tendency to use every possible shred of white space on every slide so that you could just about read the slides. This is a dumb way to do things, too. Yes, you can make it work, but just because you can open a bottle of beer on the nose of a Trident submarine does not mean that it’s actually any good at that.

There’s a classic George Bernard Shaw quote:”I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” The same thing applies to technical writing. Making things short and snappy gets you to the point quickly and usually communicates better… but it’s harder. One of my favorite examples of good, short communication is someone’s comment about the morning after an incredibly drunken night:

The morning was death, with birdsongs.

Six words and you don’t need a lot more picture than that to describe exactly how things are. (For an even better example of minimalist communication, go look up Hemingway’s 6-word short story.)

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