About the Book “Smart Brevity” by the Three Co-Founders of the Aggressively to-the-Point News Website Axios

From a Wall Street Journal review by Barton Swaim of the book by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz titled “Smart Brevity”:

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” The remark, attributed by the authors of “Smart Brevity” to Mark Twain, nicely sums up the book’s theme: It’s hard, time-consuming work to say a thing briefly, but the work pays off. In fact, Twain wrote no such thing—the remark, in a slightly different form, belongs to Blaise Pascal. But the point is still valid.

The authors of “Smart Brevity” are Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, co-founders of the aggressively to-the-point news website Axios. Messrs. Allen and VandeHei left Time magazine and the Washington Post, respectively, for Politico, which Mr. VandeHei co-founded, in 2007. Before Axios, which began in 2016, Mr. Schwartz worked for Politico and Gallup.

The book is written in the style of an Axios news article: A one- or two-sentence lede, a terse paragraph labeled WHY IT MATTERS or THE BIG PICTURE, followed by a few short bullet-pointed paragraphs. The authors developed this style, which they call Smart Brevity, when they realized that consumers of news in the 21st century, overwhelmed by words issuing from every direction, generally don’t read news articles; they skim them, or glance at the headline and the first sentence or two. Their solution: If you want to influence people through the medium of words, use fewer of them. “Strong words, shorter sentences, arresting teases, simple visuals and smartly organized ideas,” they write, “transform writing from unnoticed to vital—and remembered.”

“The Elements of Style” and many other guidebooks enjoin writers to omit needless phrases, delete unnecessary modifiers, use active verbs, and so on. You get all that here, but Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz write for the online era of short attention spans and verbal incontinence.

They have a point. Most books and essays published these days are too long: gummed up with adjectives and pointless asides, laden with prolix displays of expertise. Many news articles, too, are repetitive, full of vague insinuation, and include figures and quotations whose import is not apparent. Then there are the ordinary modes of written communication. You have not experienced periphrastic confusion until you have tried to read emails from your child’s public school about matters that ought to be simple but, for reasons that perplex the greatest minds, are not—picture days, pick-up times, grade reports.

“Something went haywire in our evolutionary journey that turned us into long-winded blowhards armed with a few fancy words in reserve,” the authors write.

That “something” was, of course, the internet. Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz don’t discuss the difference between print reading and screen reading, but it’s worth some reflection. An email or a web article can hold an infinite number of words. The temptation to keep issuing verbiage is too great, the discipline of economy too taxing, for most writers to bear. The printed page, by contrast, although it doesn’t guarantee good writing, does impose limits. If you are reading these words in print, you will note that the review comes to an end near the bottom of the page, where the dead-tree real estate reaches its end.

Just as the limitless space of web text tempts writers to indulge their logorrhea, the blinking, ever-transmuting, cartoonish interface of web browsers prevents would-be readers from paying attention to anything for longer than about 7 seconds. “Smart Brevity” is a slick, engaging and in some ways laudable effort to help communicators reach through the verbal haze and grab readers by the lapels.

Maybe the Axios style is the future of written communication. If so, please kill me.

I don’t get the bullet points, for one thing. The book’s short chapters are written in paragraphs, as all writing in English is, but about two thirds of these paragraphs have little dots to the left. “The bullet point is a wonderful way to isolate important facts or ideas,” the authors write. Maybe so, but the excessive use of bullets leads you to wonder why some bulleted paragraphs have no important facts or ideas, and some nonbulleted ones do. And anyway why am I thinking more about these little dots than about the subject matter? It’s a fine way to read if you want to go insane.

The authors show they can write lean and punchy copy, and they are right to tell readers not to write “price point” when they mean “price” or “core competency” when they mean “skill.” But their own copy, as Mark Twain never said, isn’t exactly top-drawer quality. Sometimes we have a good idea, they observe, but then “we type it up and it sounds like . . . a big clump of mud” (ellipsis in original). “A workplace revolution is unfolding in real time,” we’re told—“in real time” meaning, I guess, “now.” “Use active verbs,” they tell us. Good advice. But as an example of a sentence with a passive verb, they offer “The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate from a security perspective.” The sentence is bad but the verb is active.

The worst thing about “Smart Brevity,” though, is the way the Axios style does the work of interpretation for the reader. News journalism at its best presents you with an array of observable circumstances and no definite conclusion. The arrangement of those circumstances is itself an act of interpretation, to be sure, but in the end the journalist leaves it to readers to decide what it all means.

Not in the world of Smart Brevity™. There you’re simply told WHY IT MATTERS and THE BOTTOM LINE and, in its online manifestation, if you doubt the reporter’s construal you’re invited to click the words GO DEEPER and read some other article. “Don’t make your readers pick what’s important!” the authors exclaim to reporters. “You’ve mastered your content, honed your idea and know what matters.”

The assumed connection between mastery of “content” and the attainment of truth. That, in a way, is everything wrong with 21st-century journalism.

Barton Swaim is an editorial-page writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Speak Your Mind

*