Thursday, September 10, 2009

Concise writing is usually clear writing (7) – Thomas Paine

Here’s another great example of concise, clear writing. It is from the essay, Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795), by Thomas Paine (pictured).

Example of concision

In the last paragraph of the essay, Mr. Paine tells politicians why they should not attempt to rationalize torture or other barbarities:

“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

He makes his point clearly, in only 54 words.

In contrast, the March 14, 2003 memo in which George W. Bush’s Department of Justice attempts to rationalize the use of torture by U.S. troops runs 81 pages.*

The Takeaway: Concise writing is almost always clear writing, and clear writing is almost always concise writing. Careless writers dash off a draft, run it through a spell-checker and are satisfied. The result is usually overly long and not overly clear. In contrast, careful writers revise several times until they know the writing is both clear and concise. Thomas Paine and his contemporaries wrote with quill pens; we who write with word processing software are kidding ourselves when we say we have no time to revise.

*Clear writers are always clear thinkers. That’s why Mr. Paine could foresee that men like George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would eventually show up.

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