Monday, February 9, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (4)

In the last post, I showed three examples of how much you can convey in 100 words or so. Here’s another good example that I just noticed:


In March 1811, during the Peninsular War, British Private William Wheeler of the 51st Light Infantry, fighting under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (pictured), arrived in Lisbon. In a letter, Private Wheeler described his first impression of the Portuguese people, who were Britain’s allies during that war:

What an ignorant, superstitious, priest-ridden, dirty, lousy set of poor devils are the Portuguese. Without seeing them it is impossible to conceive there exists a people in Europe so debased. The filthiest pigsty is a palace to the filthy houses in this dirty stinking city, all the dirt made in the houses is thrown into the streets, where it remains baking until a storm of rain washes it away. The streets are crowded with half-starved dogs, fat Priests and lousy people. The dogs should all be destroyed, the able-bodied Priests drafted into the Army, half the remainder should be made to keep the city clean, and the remainder if they did not inculcate the necessity of personal cleanliness should be hanged. (121 words) (Source)


I don’t think any of us had the slightest difficulty understanding what Private Wheeler thought of his allies. It’s frightening to imagine what he thought of his enemies.

Note that he repeats a couple of words – either intentionally for emphasis, or carelessly, I don’t know.

I suspect you’d have to look far and wide today to find an army private who could write as well as Private Wheeler.

The Takeaway: When we write concisely and don’t waste words on circumlocutions, equivocations, evasions or tangents, we can say a lot in 100 words or so. One technique for writing concisely is to deliberately write an overlong first draft and then keep reducing it. For example, to write a 2000-word article, I typically write a 3000-word first draft. In successive drafts, I cut 500 words, 300 words, 150 words, and 50 words, leaving a concise, 2000-word fifth draft that connects like a sledge hammer. This technique is quicker and easier than it sounds. Try it.

See disclaimer.

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