Brevity: next to godliness

There, there. Let Mama read you some Hemingway.

I think I’ve finally figured out the genesis of wordy writing: high school English teachers. When my oldest daughter was a freshman, she took a final exam in which she was forced to write two full paragraphs on prompts like

Give three ways that Charles Dickens creates suspense in Great Expectations, and discuss the effectiveness.

What would a proper response be?

Dickens uses foreshadowing, mysterious plot lines and the slowing down of time to create suspense. Each element succeeds in making the reader interested in what will happen next.

These two sentences answer the prompt concisely and directly. Our student writer could then,  in succinct fashion, delineate how each of these elements succeed. But students are penalized for such brevity — they are required to hit a certain word count. Conan’s spawn was forced to use meaningless filler phrases such as

  • at this point in time
  • had an effect upon
  • in order to
  • for the purpose of
  • until such time as
  • with the possible exception of
  • in my personal opinion

Oh, the humanity!

In the interest of brevity, I’ll say no more.

Cassandra pointed out that my original draft was a little too brief. I’ve amended it based on her comments. Thanks, Cassandra!



  1. Not defending any filler phrases but your response doesn’t actually ‘discuss the effectiveness’ it simply says that they succeed. There are no examples from the text or discussion as to why each of the devices you have suggested create interest for the reader. There is a great deal that could be said to fully ‘discuss’ the prompt without resorting to fillers.

    • You are right, of course, Cassandra. In my rush to make my point, I cheated. In your honor, I will rewrite that part of my screed. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

  2. Sorry, wasn’t trying to be picky. I just regularly have the argument with students that one sentence is not a discussion. I hate filler phrases but I do like a good discussion.

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