Brevity is the soul of wit

Reddit.com recently challenged their readers to create a horror story in two sentences. The responses were incredible, creative, witty, and yes, chilling. My favorite one was just six words long: “I just saw my reflection blink.” It tells you volumes. It sets the scene, makes you think in just six words.

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” Polonius couldn’t have said it better in Hamlet. The irony of the situation was that he didn’t know how to follow his own advice, and it’s definitely difficult to follow sometimes. We learn in school about run-on sentences, but often don’t recognize them without a number of conjunctions and commas. We learn that simple sentences should not be overused, that we need to add other things like compound sentences and compound complex sentences, but when do those compound complex sentences turn into run ons? Here are some helpful hints:

1. Try to say the sentence in one breath.

This is an old method our teachers told us to use and it may be simple, but can be effective, unless you’re an Olympic synchronized swimmer or have a tendency to hyperventilate.

2. Count the words.

A sentence doesn’t have to be under a specific amount of words, but if there are more words in your one sentence than the weeks of the year, you may want to consider shorter sentences.

If your sentence is longer than a normal paragraph, you may want to consider breaking it up. If your sentence is longer than a page, delete it and start over.

3.  Diagram it.

I know, most people don’t remember how to diagram their sentences. It’s trite, long, boring, and kind of stupid, but if your diagrammed sentence has more lines than the blueprint of the Michigan Insane Asylum, you may want to reconsider the sentence.

4. Count the commas.

Commas are wonderful things, and I fully support the Oxford comma. However, even I say that comma usage can get out of hand.

Read your sentence aloud. If you pause at each comma and you find yourself hyperventilating by the last word, you may have a few too many commas. If it looks like you dipped a fly in ink and let it run rampant on your page, you may have one too many commas, either that, or you were trying to compose classical music.

There is a delicate balance between being overly wordy and just the right amount. Please proceed with caution.

This entry was posted in Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply