Writer’s Desk: Churchill on Brevity

Writers can be like doctors—and no, not because both write down the things you say in ways that may or may not reflect your intent. Writers, like doctors, have a proclivity to ignore their own advice.

Take Winston Churchill. In his rather extensive bibliography, you can find a four-volume biography of the 1st Duke of Marlborough which he had originally planned to be just two volumes.

Nevertheless, during the war, Churchill became enamored of brevity, likely due to all the reports he needed to read. In August 1940, he wrote a memo that called for everyone to shorten up their writing:

Let us … have an end of such phrases as these: ‘It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…’ or ‘Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…’

Most of these wooly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.

He went on to write a six-volume history of the Second World War and a four-volume history of the English-speaking people.

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