The Power of Brevity And Deletion

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Hemingway, it’s said, was sitting around a table with a gathering of friends, when he wagered a bet. I can write a complete story, he said, in six words.

Money fell onto the table.

Then Papa shared:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

To this day, nobody knows if it ever actually happened, though the tale of the wager and the 6-word story has become the stuff of legend in the world of writing.

In those six words lies an entire story, rich enough to bring some to tears.

Hemingway was hailed for his efficiency with words.

Nothing was extraneous.

Every syllable had import.

A reason to be.

As a blogger, a writer and an author deep into my next 60,000 word book, I keep revisiting the power of the six-word story.

What makes it so gorgeous is not only what’s packed into those six words, but what’s not.

It’s not just about brevity or linguistic efficiency.

The words deliver just enough of the framework to hint at a story, while providing gaps around the very facts that, once filled in by your own experience, make the story come alive.

The nuance comes not so much from the words, but from how they elicit your participation in the story.

That’s what makes it so powerful. What makes it feel like it was written just for you.

Because you, in fact, wrote much of it, without even knowing it.

Genius.

It’s not just about efficiency, it’s about space, participation and relevance.

So, I’m curious, how might we integrate the lessons of Hemingway’s particular approach to the six word story into our own storytelling?

As bloggers, writers, communicators, marketers, personal brands, raconteurs, sales people, entrepreneurs and creators, what might happen if we focused not on fleshing out the conversation with our own observations, but on:

(1) Writing less and

(2) Deleting key facts in an effort to allow our readers, viewers, listeners and customers to unintentionally fill them in a way that makes our message feel singly relevant to them?

This very strategy was, in fact, taught to me as a powerful way to make headlines and marketing copy feel like they’ve gotten into a reader’s head, made a beeline past knee-jerk defenses and hit home.

Writing this way takes work, but when you nail it, the impact can be extraordinary.

Thoughts?

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47 responses

47 responses to “The Power of Brevity And Deletion”

  1. Skye Dawn says:

    I think this is a great point. So often I find myself saying more than I need to in order to drive my point home. As I have heard before, and now again thanks to you, less is more. I love it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Krsh says:

    Wonderful article! Thankyou.. your posts truly help and enlighten me.

  3. Paul Hobart says:

    Wonderful Jonathan
    Don Miguel Ruiz talks about how each of us lives within our own movie of the world and our life. Your article speaks to writing that can weave into each individual’s “movie” in a relevant way. Powerful and thought provoking my friend
    Paul

  4. Interesting post, both in the regards to brevity and hey, any excuse to reference Hemingway is a good one. But in the pursuit of being succinct, is it really necessary to use bullet points AND numbers in the same two item list? Also in the paragraph that precedes it “out” should be “our”.

  5. Mary says:

    Agreed. This is what makes a great writer and why I enjoy Stephen King books in particular… he gives you enough to understand but not so much that you drown in details. He lets your experience and emotions fill the gap.

    For blogging, you want to convey your point of view, but most readers don’t think that YOU know it all, they want to be a part of the conversation. Is a blog post a debate where your point must be made and all points covered? Heck no. And it’s more fun when your readership makes your point for you, or even brings up a point of view that you never considered while writing.

    Happy New Year!

  6. Karen says:

    Awesome post Jonathan! There’s lots of talk about relevancy, but to move the goal to participation and engagement takes writing to an entirely different level. Thank you!

  7. Tim Brownson says:

    Not sure if you have read or studied Milton H Erickson much JF, but the Milton Model of language (sometimes called artfully vague language) is not dissimilar to this approach.

    He was the first hypnotherapist to work with the client by using metaphors and not using direct command, in the hope that the conscious mind would notice things literally, but the unconscious mind would understand what the deeper message was.

    Not quite what you are talking about here I know, but interesting nevertheless.

    To me anyway πŸ˜‰

  8. Dom says:

    hi Jonathan, hope you had a great Christmas.

    Valuable blog post, thanks. Less is more, particularly in these days of information overload.

  9. Cory says:

    OK, I’ll take a stab.

    “Mr” above “Ms” on license?…(sigh)

  10. Cory says:

    Oh, and awesome post, Jonathan!

  11. Robin says:

    Great points made succinctly Jonathan.

    I’ll add two from my reporting experience.

    – Keep your transitions smooth – Don’t take out so many words that your readers can’t follow the story or logic.

    – I think my words could be doing more – The issue is not really word count. Instead, it’s using more words where they’re needed, and fewer where they’re not.

    Both mean you have to be your own editor, a skill I work on every day.

  12. clustered says:

    Definitely qualities that I now recognize in all my favorite authors. Of the two I think most important is the art you describe as drawing all the necessary details from each individual readers mind. It makes the story more dynamic. The detailed depth of what actually happens then fits the taste of a much wider audience. At the same time maximizing each readers enjoyment as whatever specifics the reader wants, the reader gets.

    Knowing who and what kind of readers are out there would be just as important to a writer as market analysis is to a business. The author would know specific slang or terms to use that could further the “personalization” of the story while remaining vague.

    It’s brilliant and I can completely understand the experience you describe from the readers side of the fence (as I am a reader)

  13. A tangent to the great writers can compose great sentences motif is editing. I often play the game of taking my thoughts and rearranging the whole paragraph as written. The sentence puzzle editing effect can yield strong and interesting writing. Brevity and deletion only work with true solid wording.

    ~~~

    The sentence puzzle editing effect can yield strong and interesting writing. Brevity and deletion only work with true solid wording. A tangent to the great writers can compose great sentences motif is editing. I often play the game of taking my thoughts and rearranging the whole paragraph as written.

  14. Filipinos have a tendency to be verbose, I noticed when I immigrated from the Philippines to the U.S. Years as a journalist and speechwriter in California have pruned my writing. But I still get carried away trying to be evocative when I have too much invested in the subject. A good way to keep me disciplined is to read spare but powerful prose, usually by American writers.

  15. Maggie Mae says:

    Brilliant! You just changed my New Year’s letter… drastically! I’d been struggling with how to share details… now, I won’t bother so everyone can supply their own. Thanks.

  16. less is more, ’nuff said ;~D

    Happy New Year, Jonathan!

  17. Jonathan: Funny, I woke up this morning panicked about my last blog article. Too long and self-focused. I went to my laptop and deleted the extraneous parts and the personal narrative and re-posted.

    As usual, you hit the proverbial hammer on the head. And with swift, concise strikes. Just enough, Zen Buddhists say.
    Thanks,
    Jeffrey
    trackingwonder.com

  18. In his book, “Brain Rules”, John Medina writes, ” The most common communication mistakes? Relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots. Lots of force-feeding, very little digestion. This does nothing for the nourishment of the listeners…”

    Less is more.

    Charles

  19. Philip Nowak says:

    Great post Jonathan. I’ve been focusing on writing in a more concise manner and have recently blogged about this exact topic. Brevity is certainly an art-form, especially when it elicits an emotional response from your reader.

  20. Kelly says:

    In zen, they talk of “live” words and “dead” words. Living words are inspired in the moment, potent, powerful, succinct, from the heart. Dead words are merely conceptual.

  21. Anne Wayman says:

    Hmmmm. CreativeCopyChallenge.com regularly challenges us to create a story in 10 words… it’s a fun and valuable exercise.

    Love the Papa quote.

    Thanks, as usual.

  22. Neil says:

    Brevity IS the essence of clarity isn’t it? Hemingway was a fascinating man. Complex..in a direct sort of way. I sometimes envy the flame he lit and mourn that it burned out too soon.
    The site is a work in progress. Reaching out to help others fix their homes and, as a result, their lives, is a mission I’m on. I’m revamping the words asap in light of what’s I’ve read from comments. Tell me what y’all think. We are all about helping each other don’t you think? (Let me know what I can do for you as well, if only to advise).

  23. Alex says:

    I don’t understand exactly what Hemingway is doing with the 6 word story – shorter than some haikus – but “brevity” is not the point.

    The story evokes images and emotion but cleary we fill in all that so your commenter referring to Milton Erickson is spot on.

    It reminds me of an apology at the beginning of a letter – sorry I don’t have time to write a short letter today, this will be a long letter.

    what we do when we write is to add and add and…what Hemingway did was perhaps the exact opposite, to pare down to the essence.

    Hard to write about this without sounding pretentious.

    πŸ™‚

    Happy New Year anyhow!

  24. Jeremy Seth Davis says:

    Jonathon, great post today! It reminds me of my favorite Dizzy Gillespie quote: β€œIt’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.”

  25. Tom Aplomb says:

    Great post – necessary for every writer’s education. What you suggest is hard to do, because we’ve been taught never to be unclear or leave anything out of our writing.

  26. I like brevity, thanks Jonathan Fields.

  27. Tom Bentley says:

    Jonathan, one of the most difficult (but often most satisfying) challenges I face as a writer is chopping away at an article: reducing a piece from 1,000 words to 500 can be a hair-pulling experience. But it’s amazing, if painful, to see how much deadwood there is in a chunk of writing. Thanks for the reminder to be vigilant.

    Here’s a six-worder of mine:

    Finally published. No readers. Quietly perished.

  28. Benita says:

    There was a long standing discussion on the Linkedin Group, TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, entitled “Who are you? Could you tell the ‘story of you’ in six words?” It went on for ages. Loved participating in the TED discussion and seeing other participant’s responses as well. Love Hemingway’s challenge! Thanks, Jonathan!

  29. Writing that way does take work, Jonathan, but I think it’s great work. The more I mature as I communicator, the more I realize I’ve been saying too much.

    Except…

    In business writing, there seems to be a much higher demand for what we’d rather leave out. People want case studies, stories, and anecdotes. Anything else seems “too much theory.”

    My art is found in using those extra words to foster adaptable thinking rather than giving them a bunch of cases just to show the point. But, man o’ man, is it work!

    And, were I to be brief, I would have just said “great post!” πŸ™‚

  30. Glynis Jolly says:

    I’m usually told that I don’t elaborate enough. Of course, this has been said when I’m writing a story, not a blog post. Maybe I am just naturally geared for writing posts. I’ll have to read more of Hemingway.

  31. caitlyn says:

    Some years ago when we were buying our first place we hired a well-respected realtor. A few weeks in I was frustrated. This guy used few words & wiggled out of giving his opinion about the places we saw… unless there was something clearly wrong with it that we’d missed. And, then, it would be a hint to look in the right direction.

    Since then we’ve dealt with him repeatedly and consider him a friend. He consistently tops the sales in his very busy office. I believe he lets the client create the story that most engages them – and leads to a sale.

  32. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, dudecraft and others. dudecraft said: Jonathan Fields on the Power of Brevity and Deletion. Phew, there's something I need work on. http://bit.ly/gfyJGt […]

  33. chieko says:

    It’s akin to Haiku spirit?

    Space between words seems to create deeper meanings.

    We often communicate between lines.

    Also we get a message by things not being said.

    Sometimes a total absence of a thing makes its presence stand out, doesn’t it?

  34. Travis Elron says:

    “Let the reader create the story”. Yes, absolutely. This also works very well, by the way, during face to face selling. Letting the prospect create a picture of his/her life after they do business with you by asking questions such as “What is you biggest problem concerning XYZ?” (bring out the pain). “If we’re able to minimize or eliminate that problem, what would that mean to your business?” (or family or life, etc). This is a killer sales technique for selling intangibles like training or consulting. I call it the “pain funnel” and have been using it for years & years.

  35. This is really hard for me. I have gotten into the habit of telling it straight up in my articles, to the point I fear they’re a little boring.

    This has been showing up in my fiction; my novel tells too much!

    Thanks for reminding us of this. How do you suggest deleting what’s not essential without losing clarity?

    One exercise I use is to write the piece, then cut the word count by half. But I am not sure if that guarantees the reader will be lured in by the mystery of what’s not revealed.

  36. Good writing, like life, is about purpose, execution, and balance.

  37. Sherron says:

    Wow, Jonathan. When I read this, I kinda scoffed, although I did understand your point. However, when I wrote my blog post today, I said a lot less than I set out to say – and I think it’s a better post because of that. So, thanks!

  38. I think as writers we have a hard time trusting that our audience will get it the way we get it, so we feel the need to explain too much or show too much. We need to learn to trust our readers and also realize that no one will ever get it the way we do anyway, everyone is going to color what they read with their own life experiences and knowledge, and that’s okay.

  39. Couldn’t have said it better myself:). . .and at a time when every-freakin-one else is trying desparately to get their hit of the new year into words that you and I can “buy to” – I find your post most refreshing.

    As always Jnathan,thank you.

  40. Hemingway’s story is powerful because it taps into emotion. How many readers know someone that can relate to his story? Or possibly they themselves can sadly relate. When you let the reader fill in their own blanks, they become invested in the story.

    Listening to the spoken word is easy. Reading is easy. It takes our brain hardly any energy at all. So, what do you think our brain does when those words don’t keep it’s attention? It has a million other things it can think about, and it will pick a few and wander off.

    Jonathan, you’ve made everyone THINK a little deeper today. What a great gift.

  41. […] The Power of Brevity and Deletion Simplicity works in almost every avenue of life, from the possessions you own to the words you use. (@ jonathan fields) […]

  42. […] The Power of Brevity and Deletion Simplicity works in almost every avenue of life, from the possessions you own to the words you use. (@ jonathan fields) […]

  43. […] document.getElementById("ck_email")); A few weeks back, I shared the idea of brevity and deletion, using a famed Hemingway 6-word story as an example.Today, I want to turn to another element of […]