In my high-school Spanish class, the teacher assigned us weekly homework. Each student was to write a fifty-word essay using at least five vocabulary words we’d just learned. I realize fifty words doesn’t sound like much (it wasn’t), but on that first week of my freshman year, I wasn’t sure I even knew fifty words in Spanish.
Once I actually sat down at my computer and started writing, I realized how silly I’d been. The assignments became thoughtless busy-work. Fifty words is nothing. The previous paragraph alone is longer than than that. What you’ve read thus far is already double that length.
But I’ll be the first to admit it—just because putting fifty words on a page is easy doesn’t make those words any good. Many of those Spanish assignments read like Dick and Jane stories—“When I grow up I want to be an architect. I will work in an office with friendly coworkers…”
Thinking back on this exercise, though, I wonder if my Spanish teacher set the limit at fifty words because that’s all she thought we were capable of or because that’s all she wanted to read?
Although “long reads” seem to be in vogue, it’s getting harder and harder to fit long things into our days. I find myself getting frustrated with podcasts longer than thirty or forty minutes (which I’m already listening to at 1.5x speed). I leave longform essays in open tabs for weeks before finally reading them. I pass on hour-long TV because it’s too much to sit down and pay attention for that length of time—and yet, I end up scrolling through Twitter for that hour anyway. The 140-character short hits are addictive and hold my attention much better than an award-winning drama or well-researched piece in the New Yorker.
Even this newsletter is probably too long, averaging about 1000 words per essay (…deal with it). Which is why I’m intrigued by (blog reader and friend) M. Jay Granger’s project, 100w. It’s a new series on his newsletter At Work | At Home where he’s challenging himself to send a weekly essay just 100 words long.
I’m excited to see how it turns out, because keeping things that concise is a real challenge. As I said, these newsletters average 1000 words, but the first drafts are far longer. In my day-job in advertising, I battle the same demons. I write commercials that can’t go longer than thirty seconds and billboard headlines that can’t be longer than seven words. It makes those fifty-word essays in Spanish class seem like “long reads!”
The more I read and the more I write, the more I realize—if you want someone to give you five seconds of their attention, you have to spend fifty-five minutes earning it by making your message as brief and as clear as possible.
Unfortunately, it’s not just my pen that goes long, it’s my mouth too. I have a hard time shutting up when I’m telling a story or talking about a topic in which I have some expertise.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the middle of teaching a Level 1 class at my improv theater (which has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience). One of my goals before the session started was to avoid talking topics to death. These students didn’t come to class to listen to me wax poetic about longform—they came to get on stage and play.
Overall, I’ve done pretty well at keeping my lectures brief and teaching through sidecoaching and notes…until last Sunday night. The focus of the lesson was “game of the scene,” an improv skill that can be confusing, but one I find exciting and essential. In my own eagerness, I forgot that the best way to learn improv is through doing. Instead, I spent the first twenty minutes of class lecturing, confusing, and throwing them into heady, analytical exercises.
Thankfully, they made their perplexity clear. After the break, we shook it off and I told them to forget everything we’d just done. In previous classes, they’d naturally been discovering patterns and inadvertently been making game moves. I wanted them to go back to that. Rather than force them to overthink it, I had them perform scenes for fun; if they found a game within it, I highlighted and celebrated that moment.
This second half of class was completely different than the first. Everyone was looser, having more fun. Cheering on and rewarding their natural impulses was far more effective.
I wish I had just started there at the top of the class. Less talking; more doing.
I was listening to a podcast about President Woodrow Wilson this past week (Forty-two minutes long…but I let it slide) and came across some brief thoughts about brevity.
“A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said:
‘It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.'”
That sentiment mirrors a whole family of quotes from the mathematician Pascal (“I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”), Steven King (“Second draft equals first draft minus ten percent.”), and Mark Twain (“If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready today. If you want me to speak for just a few minutes, it will take me a few weeks to prepare.”). And while it seems far more intimidating to write 1000 words on a topic versus fifty, these famous figures make the point again and again that the less time or space you have to share your message, the harder and more arduous it is to convey your meaning.
But more is not always more. Bigger is not always better. Time spent cannot be taken back. It is the one limiting resource we all share equally. Consider spending more of yours to save someone else theirs. They’ll thank you for it.
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