Writing Advice: On Brevity


The Twitter Fiction Festival, which started yesterday and goes through March 16, includes Algonquin authors Bill Roorbach, Sara Farizan and Gabrielle Zevin. Each author is creating an original work of fiction, meted out in 140-character installments. (Check them out. They’ve each done amazing things with the form, and their stories are fantastic.) Even if you’re not crafting fiction 140 characters at a time (oh, how that would have made Faulkner’s head spin!), brevity is a powerful tool for any writer. To that end, a few (brief) thoughts on the matter:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” — From William Strunk’s Elements of Style

•“Keep it simple. . . . Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.”

•“Have guts to cut. . . . If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — Both from Kurt Vonnegut’s “How to Write with Style, originally published in How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, found here

•“Not every sentence can be great, but every sentence must be good. . . . Perhaps good is best defined by what a sentence is not: indifferent, slack, utilitarian, boring.” — From Brevity 

•“Sentences written in the active voice are more concise. They’re direct, energetic and keep the reader reading.” — from CopyMatter.com

“Be your own editor/ critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — from Joyce Carol Oates, as seen on HuffingtonPost.com


Bill Roorbach’s latest novel is Life Among Giants, available now in paperback. Sara Farizan’s debut novel is If You Could Be Mine. Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry comes out next month.

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