The Clarity of Brevity
Finding the right words
As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time crafting sentences and paragraphs. Writing a sentence is easy. Writing a sentence that communicates the idea in your mind to another is much more challenging. The translation from mind to words to mind again is lossy.
There’s a fashionable way to write, which suggests using concise language to make a point. This is particularly true in scientific writing. In the more mathematical sciences, I imagine this is the result of dealing with equations that already compress our thoughts. After all, an equation is just a compact representation of an idea. The equations of general relativity are easy to write down, but understanding them takes many hours of learning.
The writing I see in many papers seems to gravitate towards brevity, where everything is said in as dense a form as possible. My favourite example is when scientists use parentheses to fuse two sentences into one. Consider the following sentence (I’ve simply made this up):
On the right of the figure, we plot the results of extensive simulations using dotted lines. On the left, we plot the experimental results with solid lines.
Putting the sentence through the “compactifying filter” of scientists, the published result will likely look like this:
On the right (left) of the figure, we plot the results of the simulation (experiment) using dotted (solid) lines.
If we’re judging the writing on its brevity, this sentence is great. It packs in the same amount of information in a much smaller space, increasing the information density. Plus, if you’re trying to hit a specific page count, then this is a technique for shortening your paper.
The problem: It’s difficult to parse.
That’s because you’re using parallelism in a medium that is sequential. Because there are effectively two sentences superimposed, I need to read the sentence twice to understand what’s going on. In each pass, I’ll either focus on the parenthetical words or the non-parenthetical words. But because they are part of the same sentence, they clutter up the rest of the words, making it tricky to understand. We aren’t used to “jumping” across a word while reading, but rather read each word sequentially. By fusing two sentences into one, you’re giving me a headache.
But the idea of brevity is much more than this one example. In my mind, good scientific writing only requires a moderate amount of brevity. The reason is that brevity will leave things out of the writing, and what’s left out has to be “made up” by the reader. Think of a mathematical textbook or paper that explains that a proof is “trivial”, so it won’t be explained. Or perhaps it’s left as an exercise to the reader. Whenever a piece of information is left out, the reader needs to be capable of grasping it without a heroic effort.
There is a balance between the author giving everything to the reader (leaving no room for interpretation) and having the author simply point in a direction and let the reader fill in the blanks. Good writing will straddle this balance to share what needs to be shared, while also not overloading the reader.
As I find myself in the process of writing a scientific paper, I’m thinking more and more about what to leave in and what to leave out. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this project, and the amount of accumulated knowledge I have is substantial. The question is: Does it all need to go into the paper?
I think the answer is “No”. After all, a paper is an artifact of a research question and its answer (or work towards that answer). If I included everything in the paper, it would be very complete and reflect what I did, but it would also incur a cost on the reader. Instead of being greeted with five pages, they might be greeted by twenty. That’s a big difference when deciding if you should invest the time to read a paper.
Brevity plays a role in these considerations. It’s important to say what you need to say concisely. But I would argue that it should always be with the reader in mind. You aren’t trying to lower a word count, nor are you trying to make a paper with the information density of a black hole. Rather, the goal is simple: Communicate an idea from your mind to the minds of others. The transmission will be lossy, so take care in making your point briefly, but not in a way that makes the reader work harder. Give them everything they need, and maybe even a little boost. To use a sports analogy: Make reading feel like cycling down a smooth hill, not up a gnarly one.
Brevity brings clarity, until it doesn’t.
- Stephen B. Heard’s post on shortening a manuscript is worth reading to see examples of when brevity is not sought after with the reader in mind.