It began with the precis-shaping exercise during our English language class in school when we had to compress the essence of an unseen passage into 60 words. Then came the poster-perfect slogans, those pithy essays by Francis Bacon, extempore speech and debates galore to challenge my ability to squeeze arguments into just three minutes. Cut to 2022. The word economy is now de rigueur in the dopamine-flavoured social media: 140 characters or less, pinched spelling, innuendos and flirty captions in memes. Brevity is beautiful and neatly sidelines mediocrity in limping lines.
Don’t you agree?
Copious text simply wears me out mentally, descending like a sack of potatoes on my eyeballs. As I peel back the layers, I come to the conclusion that short stories make for snappier consumption, but decidedly demand greater dexterity in fashioning a hook at the end of each narration. It is relatively easier to write a novel in terms of detailed character carpentry. Of course, the two styles are simply not analogous, much like the non-analogous nature of India’s relationships with China and Russia. Back to the economy of words: there is something challenging and magnetic about the economy of words. It feeds and hones my mental appetite.
Call it the art of distillation. Condensing an incoherent romp or blather into a meaningful, potent piece of prose asks for powerful prowess. That’s why editing is not for the faint-hearted. Clearly, the length of your writing is not a measure of strength. French novelist Victor Hugo set the tone with the shortest communication possible in 1862 (if you pardon the digressions of his genius in his rather prolix work, Les Misérables). When in forced exile during the publishing of his magnum opus, he shot off a telegram to his publisher, enquiring about the response of the masses to his work, with a simple “?”.
The publisher responded with a prompt “!”. Succinctly dramatic. In current climes, this trait has perhaps been gleaned and employed effectively in shoutouts by political parties—Whether it is the saffron call in ‘UP + Yogi: Bahut hai Upyogi’ or Akhilesh Singh Yadav’s encounter in ‘Abki Baar 400 Paar’, in the cowbelt, there is only room for catchy slogans as the election chants grow louder.
Yards and yards of manifestos are being locked into a few fragrant words for easy consumption. Clearly, there is a growing space for epigrams, without vanilla trimmings. I find my love for word economy rooted in the caress of Urdu shayari, and quotes by the laconic and the cerebrally charged. Pick eclectic minds in GB Shaw, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde… and discover words spawned to bring in a wealth of meaning unto themselves, without making us feel lost in a forest of verbiage.
Meanwhile, we are frittering away the rhythm of grammar, taking on the mantle of coining tawdry portmanteaus—remember Virushka and VicKat? And don’t forget the colloquial swirls a la listicle, gormazing, galentine… Oh, well. All is well, in keeping with ( Mark) Twain tut—“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”
How about you?
Mumbai-based journalist and editor