An Exercise In Brevity



Chukwukwe Eugenia Adaku

I’ve never been one to say things succinctly. I prefer to add [numerous, tangential, hyperbolic, metaphorical, categorical] modifiers to flavour my words. I like to meander [but is it really meandering if it’s intended to begin with, if it’s an essential part to my complete thought? ] so I can integrate different views but still impact my listeners with my key point at the end. I like to start with a sort of general introduction [which we can see evidence of right here: watch as the generalizations enumerated previously become background for a relevant but distinctly separate idea below ] before delving into the major substance of my thoughts. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m willing to bet you’ve heard that phrase before. But I disagree with it. “Brevity” is not the soul of wit: depth is. Why are one-liners funny? It’s not because they’re short. It’s because they’re deep . Their depth is extracted from their succinctness, yes. But we aren’t laughing at good quips because they were uttered in three seconds. It’s because what was uttered in three seconds required us to think for another second or two before the deeper meaning, the picture below the surface, came into focus. And when it does, we’re taken aback at how pithy and witty the observation or comment was for such a short phrase.
But you can find humour in long jokes too–jokes that require a story to tell. Jokes that have little mini jokes sprinkled throughout to remind you that it’s all building up to the big finish, the comedic sprinkles on your cupcake of laughter. Story-jokes require skill to tell successfully, because it’s easy to lose your audience in the details or to have long stretches that have a dearth of humour–comedians who are able to relate story-jokes to their audience are extremely talented. Comedic hacks, on the other hand, continue to do stand-up.
Don’t read too deeply into that, take it at face value: I do not mean in any way to imply that to do stand- up comedy takes no talent or that it is reserved for the talentless. Rather the opposite is true–good stand-up comedy is incredibly difficult and requires a very high level of talent. But stand-up is also the go-to form for all the crack comedians and simple minded fart joke abusers who feel like throwing jokes out there one after the other and hoping at least a handful garner some giggles is the epitome of humour. It isn’t. They think there’s a “type” of humour that’s a catch-all, something that is universally appealing and successful. There isn’t. Maybe I’m an elitist when it comes to comedy. Maybe I have some bizarre sense of what’s funny and what isn’t, but I tell you what–I don’t just take after the masses either. There is no “type” of comedy that I prefer or believe is better than the other; the same can be said of writing. It’s all about the quality of the work produced through the medium chosen to convey it.
I like prose. I like poetry. I like fiction. I like nonfiction. I like dialogue. I like narration. I like metaphor, symbol, and imagery. I like gritty details and simple explanations. I like mystery and suspense. I like “here’s how it happened.” I’m a sucker for quality, not type. I don’t care if you write poetry that lacks symbol and imagination. I don’t care if you abuse metaphor and analogy. I don’t care if you write from experience or from observation. I really don’t. If it’s good, if I can feel you through your words, if I think I understand the point you’re making because I saw and felt some point being made there, then I like it. I don’t care if your prose is filled with complex sentences and unique structure and erudite diction.
I don’t care if you write exclusively in a stream of consciousness style that forgoes punctuation of any kind and never decides to end a thought and start a new one and uses “and” to show that you’re still deciding to write one long drawn-out idea and turn every sentence into a run-on sentence until you finally stop. Or use fragments. If it’s good, if I can feel you through your words, if I think I understand the point you’re making because I saw and felt some point being made there, then I like it.
Oscar Wilde argues that writing is not to be judged based on its form, but rather its content: “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” This is true of all writing. Writing is either good because the reader can connect to it, or it’s bad because they can’t. Simple as that. It has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing, preferring the subject matter or not. If you can relate to a piece, even in a way that is totally antithetical to the point the author is trying to make, if you can find a deep meaning inna piece, it’s good writing.
Never assume there’s a formula for deciding how good writing will be presented. That’s true for both reader and writer. Don’t “just write”–think. Know what it is you’re feeling and wanting to say and express, and let it flow. The rest should (and will) come from there. If it’s only a few lines, so be it. Don’t force a novella on your audience. If it’s a long-winded diatribe (see above), whatever. Don’t cut out words and phrases that you mean, that carry your voice and soul and meaning. It all comes down to what you’re trying to say. I wanted to write something short, and it evolved into this. My message simply couldn’t be contained in a paragraph, at least not as I saw fit. And don’t worry–you didn’t miss any punchline. I hadn’t intended this to be a joke.

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