The Soul of Brevity


By Dana L. Stringer

When learning effective communication techniques, it’s not uncommon to hear the catchphrase, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”  However, with the widespread appeal of text messaging, instant messaging, and tweeting with a 140-character limitation, some may even contend that “It’s not how you say it, but how long it takes you to say it.”

During a time when information and data is without end, our attention spans are not.  This was glaringly obvious back in the early 1990s, when I began writing poetry.  I was still haunted by the lengthy and complex poems that were mandatory reading in high school English and college literature.  And without any factual basis whatsoever, other than my own aversion to long poems, I convinced myself that people had neither the time nor the attention span to read my eloquently written three-page poems.

So, I set out to strive toward brevity in my writing, which eventually became part of my aesthetic.  And that stylistic choice was made long before I set foot inside my first writing workshop, where the facilitator insisted that “less is more” after disseminating photocopies of “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams.

Williams’ sixteen-word poem is perhaps one the best examples of a poet’s ability to say more with fewer words.  It was a skill that I coveted and wanted to master.

However, the challenge to convey my ideas and experiences in the most condensed way required a willingness to critically examine the necessity of each word, and the ability to pare down my poems to the most essential words that carried the most meaning, emotion, and musicality.

Initially, I thought I would feel confined and limited in my expression, but giving myself permission to remove words and details that seemed invaluable to each poem was liberating in many ways.  I could allow the implications and carefully selected literary devices to achieve what I intended as opposed to ornamental language that was more impressive.

Unfortunately, the slippery slope with my terse style of writing is that I run the risk of not saying enough, or writing a poem that might not be considered complete, at least not according to the reader.  Honestly, I would love for the reader to experience what I intended from my concise approach, but the reality is, sometimes, more is required.

Writing lengthier poems is not a bad thing; it’s simply up to the poet and what he/she intends.   But even still, for me, brevity remains a kind of art within the art that entices me to establish meaning and recreate the human experience in a compact space.

Inevitably, practicing brevity in poetry influenced my work as a playwright, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer in a positive away, especially in dramatic writing, when I realized that some of my best lines of dialogue were superfluous and had to go.

But in spite of greater time constraints and waning attention spans, an effective poem, regardless of length, will require mental work and command the time and attention of readers.

Dana L. Stringer is the author of In Between Faith.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.  In addition to writing poetry, Dana is a produced playwright, an online writing instructor, and a freelance writer.

Dana’s class: Making Poems: Turning Your Thoughts, Memories and Life Experiences into Poetry starts this Sunday! Sign up here.