Sentenced: Why Writers Need To Be Brief


Our default Prime Minister has called for all documents under submission to be no longer than two pages.

While some have called this the ‘first ADHD government’ (the condition is now being linked to maternal obesity) I think it’s probably a good idea. The sheer volume of docketed briefs must require the initial application of brevity and concision. And it fits alarmingly with the PM’s personality, where he stops listening to you the second he sees something shiny out of the window.

Press articles have lately been getting much shorter, some pieces amounting to no more than a single paragraph summary. Compare the modern press to newspapers from the late Victorian era and you’ll find it very hard to wade through an 1890 copy of The Times. We are impatient with Victorian verbosity. 

So how do we feel about this now? It’s the longest of the many long sentences Henry James ever wrote.

The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodelled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances—which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork—were of the right measure.

James creates wonderfully subtle stories and the complexity of his sentences is enthralling. The clauses, digressions and qualifications allow for temporal compressions and expansions, but to the modern reader who is not an academic it merely becomes exhausting. To read James thoroughly now requires a lot of free time. The modern style would take that sentence apart and turn it into a dozen or so.

Yet in Europe and Britain this ornate, delicately shaded style was abandoned after the WWI. From Kafka, Woolf and Waugh to Simenon and Spark, simplicity became paramount. The revived reputation of Stefan Sweig, once one of the world’s most popular writers, must partly be down to his controlled clarity and brevity. The first two pages of ‘The World of Yesterday’ (newly translated by Anthea Bell) are a description of orderly life in Vienna that contain more than you’ll learn from most novels. Ostensibly a biography, the book fulfils its title promise and contains a world. Sweig favoured the long short story as his ideal mode of writing, and I wish others would too. In a skilled writer’s hands, short does not mean shallow.

The comparison between these two writers makes a simple point; two cabinet makers can produce entirely different pieces of furniture, elaborate and simple, that must still fulfil the same function.

While readers and writers may desire briefer, better books (any idiot can write long) the mass market publishers don’t. They charge by the pound; never mind the quality, feel the thickness. That way the punters get value for money, in the same way that some value a giant plate of KFC over a small filet mignon.


14 comments on “Sentenced: Why Writers Need To Be Brief”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    A brilliant sentence from James – I love the interjection: (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) which manages to suggest an even longer sentence cut short for sake of brevity. Nice to see the correct use of colon, semi-colon and hyphenation.
    I could read this all day but I wouldn’t like to text it.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    I’d let Strewelpelter have his two pages – but I’d reduce the font size considerably. If I was feeling mischievious, he’d get his two pages, but filled up, palimpsest style, left to right, and then turned 90%, and written in a different colour, top to bottom. Hand written notes would be with a 0.5 tip pen, and written as small as possible.
    As our P.M.(sigh) writes with thick wax crayons, I expect his scrawlings to be more than two pages.

  3. Andrew Holme says:

    Churchill had to read a vast amount of information during WW2 as Prime Minister and Defence Minister. He insisted all documents be condensed and sent to him on one side of A4 paper. Alexander the Great II is by far the most important hybrid Englishman since Winnie, and I’m surprised he doesn’t insist on all documents being reduced to six word bullet points to out- do the great man. Monday morning’s COBRA meeting briefing will be.” Fluey bug — sweaty pits — all die”.

  4. brooke says:

    Nice one, Ian. Btw, really enjoying your recommendations (Aaronovitch, etc.).

    Re: P.M. mandate. Coming from the world that originated such nonsense, the result is group think, poor decisions as complex data is ignored, and decline of innovation. See Boeing.

    Re: James– what Peter D said. It’s good for the mind to parse complex language.

    Re: brevity–it may be the soul of wit but I would prefer lucidity. Which has nothing to do with page nmubers and everything to do with critical thinking.

  5. SteveB says:

    I liked the way that sentence flowed, especially at the end with the banker‘s transmutation from dislike to love

  6. Ken Mann says:

    I would now like to read a PI novel written by Henry James.

  7. Roger says:

    The “ornate, delicately shaded style” wasn’t entirely abandoned: one of the aspects of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” I most enjoy is his shift from meditations in just that style to demotic simplicity when the characters talk. I think James gets really complicated in his later novels – complex paragraphs, internally self-correcting, rather than sentences, perhaps – which he dictated.
    Who’s the chap in the picture – you in your more mandarin writing days or a hitherto unrevealed young HJ?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    brooke – I crave brevity – and lots of it. Glad you’re enjoying Mr Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers’ series. Alongside B&M, ‘The Vinyl Detective’ books by Andrew Cartmel, the ‘Slough House’ novels by Mick Herron, and the ‘Museum’ series by Jim Eldridge, and the titles from The British Library, they keep my relationship with my bank manager on the frosty side. Do I care? No.

  9. Brian says:

    Roger, the chap in the picture is a young Stefan Zweig.

  10. Bob Low says:

    I would say that the sentence quoted might be one of James’ least brutal – it’s the length of a paragraph. but his use of semi-colons and parentheses gives the reader a chance to breathe. The digressions are also genuinely informative. All too often in his later books, James had a tendency to indulge himself in punishingly long sentences that went off on tangents, were littered with irritating and pointless sub-clauses, and could take the reader several goes to finish – like trying to ride a bicycle up a steep incline. I still love him, though, and think he’s worth the effort. Anyone tempted to try James should maybe start with ‘Washington Square’, a brilliant and oddly topical book about the oppression of an intelligent and strong young woman by her domineering , creepy father.

  11. Roger says:

    Thanks, Brian.
    It’s interesting: there are writers whose image is fixed by when they were born: if they were born in the early nineteenth century and no-one drew or painted tham they are perpetually middle-aged or old, when their photographs were taken: James perpetually stout and bald, with or without beard (there are pictures of young James, but they seldom appear) and Tennyson in deranged fancy-dress with enormous beard, with or without sombrero and cape are the obvious examples.

  12. Jan says:

    Accuracy brevity speed.
    Not something I often manage(!) But whats wrong with it?


    Text culture.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Bob Lowe – you have it in one. It’s not the length that is important but the way material is spread out for the reader – all there, connected and informative.
    Nothing wrong with informative brevity, nothing at all. Everything the PM reads the Queen also reads. Have mercy on a hard working older lady and keep things concise.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    in ‘The turn of the Screw’ his use of italics which in some editions use CAPITALS and his use of hyphens can be off putting. I must admit I did enjoy the tale. I should really read more of him, but then there is a lot I want and should read but never will.


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