January Issue

Vol 23|No 3|January 2014

Order McKenzie books online with a credit card

Bring Jamie to your school or district for a great workshop.

Brevity is the soul of wit.
William Shakespeare


photo by J.McKenzie


you are my sun, my moon, all my stars

E.E. Cummings

The Long and the Short of It

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


There is something to be said for brevity - a succinct, finely crafted synopsis or an epigram. The thesaurus offers related words:

concise, short (and sweet), brief, compact, condensed, crisp, laconic, terse, to the point, pithy, epigrammatic, synoptic, gnomic; formal compendious.

ANTONYMS verbose

As long as the culture is intent upon brevity in text messages and tweets, schools might as well capitalize on the trend and equip students with verbal skills to hit the mark or touch the heart with just a few characters.


There is nothing new or modern about the exchange of brief smart comments. One of the most renowned authors of quips was Oscar Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900). His epigrams top the list even today along with those of Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Groucho Marx and Bill Cosby. It was not unusual for Wilde and his contemporaries like James Whistler (painter of Whistler's mother) to exchange sharp quips at dinner parties that stung with wit and poison.

Once on hearing a witty remark, Wilde said “I wish I’d said that”. Whistler’s response: “You will, Oscar, you will!”

Perhaps Twitter will spawn a whole new generation of smart young people capable of tossing barbs (or kisses) worthy of a Wilde, a Whistler, a Marx or a Cosby. Note that the number of characters used by Wilde and Whistler were well below the limits of a tweet (15 and 19). Up above, Shakespeare used 21 and E.E. Cummings used 27.

It would help if schools and teachers acquainted students with great writers and speakers of the past such as Oscar Wilde and James Whistler. It would help if students became aware that there are levels of cleverness and brilliance. Instead of dismissing Twitter as some kind of intellectual Wasteland, schools might suggest that there is more to a great tweet than brevity.

Tweak the Tweet

Many Web sites offer strategies to pack lots of message into the very few characters permitted by Twitter (140). Most of these employ compression strategies, replacing "to" with "2." They are automated. They have nothing to do with powerful writing and word choice. This is brevity at its worst. Reductionism and minimalism. "11 Ways to Shorten and Lengthen a Tweet"

Sites like Feather.it invite you to paste your words into a box for shortening.

Give it a try! I pasted part of Elizabeth Browning's poem, "How do I love thee?" into Feather.it.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

Feather.it converted her poem (255 characters) into the following (196 characters):

How do I ♥ the? Let me ㏇unt the wys. I ♥ the 2 the dpth & brdth & hght My sol can rch, whn flng out of sght 4 the ends of Be㏌g & idl Graœ. I ♥ the 2 the lvl of every㍲ys Most qut need, by ☼ & cndll

Is there anything lost in translation? U betcha!

It is not enough to be short - short-tempered, short-winded and short-sighted.

The power of writing cannot be judged by shortness alone.

Is ♥ a fitting substitute for love? Is love a fitting substitute for adoration or adore?

Is love a four letter word? Dylan spoke to that issue a few decades back:

I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word.

Will we reduce adoration to love, love to luv and luv to ♥?

Schools should help students to see the advantages as well as the dangers of these automated character reduction schemes.

Sweeten the Tweet

In contrast to tweaking the tweet, we might help students see the value of writing with words that are juicy, tasty, powerful, delightful, spicy and persuasive.

In writing an article, it might pay to write a sentence like the one above with many words related to the word "juicy," but in writing a tweet, perhaps juicy would suffice.


For decades, good teachers have been stressing the importance of word choice. Instead of saying someone "walked" down the street, perhaps they staggered, stumbled or sauntered? Word choice is one of the Six Traits of Effective Writing. In writing a brief text message or a tweet, lazy writing can be weak writing.

It is tempting to send a simple text to a lover such as "I luv u." But months of simple messages like that reduce the impact of the five characters to ho hum drum monotony. Is the love dying? fading? tired? uninspired?

Compare "I luv u" with "I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
my soul can reach" from Browning. Is it so difficult to borrow from E.E. Cummings, Browning and other romantic poets? For years folks relied upon Hallmark Greeting Cards to express romantic sentiments, sympathy and cheerful thoughts. Not everyone can compose their own tweets or sonnets with the brilliance of an Emily Dickinson, but we must not surrender to the temptation of dashing off brief messages that read and taste like thin gruel.

Coining a Phrase

In these times of dramatic cultural change, it is quite possible for young people to coin a phrase or invent a new word to capture one of these changes. Not everyone can come up with gems like "powerpointlessness" or "microsoftness," but students can prove themselves quite clever when it comes to word play.


Paul McFedries' site at http://wordspy.com is a richly rewarding source of recently coined words and phrases that is a good place to visit with students so they can see examples of recent coinage. Have them note the way new words such as "shelfie" (image of the photographer's book shelf) often emerge from other new words such as "selfie" (self portrait). Give them a chance to dream up something new inspired by those two words.

Another intriguing group of recent terms relates to attention. "Attention theft" is related according to Paul to the following:

attention economics
attentional blink
calm technology
continuous partial attention
famine theft
identity theft
IP theft

Seeing such a list might inspire students to dream up some attention-related terms of their own. In 2010 I came up with Technology Attention Deficit Disorder (T.A.D.D.).

Another site devoted to new words and phrases is the Urban Dictionary at http://www.urbandictionary.com, but the words here often cross into X-rated territory.

The Quip and the Epigram

While they are quite similar, students should know how quips differ from epigrams. The long and the short of it is that quips are clever remarks while epigrams are clever statements about ideas that may have lasting value.

Example of a quip - The barista asks the customer "How's your day going?" The customer smiles and quips, "Away."

As http://wiki.answers.com explains, a quip is a witty remark, especially one made on the spur of the moment. It may be more ironic or sarcastic than funny.

Many of the examples of quips provided on the Web tend to qualify for epigram status, since they seem carefully crafted and have endured over time.

Example of a quip that has become an epigram - "In California, they don't throw their garbage away - they make it into TV shows."
~Woody Allen~

Examples of epigrams - Oscar Wilde's "I can resist everything except temptation." Dorothy Parker's "The only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism."

Can we expect students to exchange quips and craft epigrams? See what they can do with a "quip starter" like these:

"A quip a day keeps the . . . "

"You can take the _____ out of the ____ but you can't take the ____ out of the ____."

"A _____ in time saves _____."

They quickly learn that quip writers often play around with older sayings. They see that quips are not the sole province of the genius or the professional wit.

Don't mince words or beat around the bush

At times we suffer from too many words that say very little. There are those who blather on an on without much meaning or import. Blogs can suffer from top of the head rambling. "Can you please get to the point!"

Students are fond of asking "How long must it be?" And some teachers feed this concern about length by setting word expectations. We end up with writing that is "full of sound and fury signifying nothing." This article stresses the importance of being succinct. State what needs to be said economically, tersely and powerfully. Encourage students to value this concise style.

The Synopsis

When students read a complicated poem such as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or a passage in Macbeth like the one quoted above, they should be able to summarize in their own words the main ideas and themes of these pieces. It is a thought process akin to distillation. They must extract the essence. As this article stresses the importance of brevity, the synopsis is a fitting exercise with which to hone this skill. The student must grasp and then synthesize the key ideas. Unfortunately, there are countless documents available online to save the student from thought, so it is important to request such writing sometimes when students are off line.

The Critique

In a similar fashion, students may be asked to write a critique of a play, a movie, a short story or an oil painting. They state their criteria clearly and then they analyze to what extent the performance met those standards. There are many examples of critiques online that might stimulate discussion of the traits of a good one, but as is the case with the synopsis, students must be challenged to write some of these off line.

The Appraisal

Just how good is it? Students learn to size up the value of something and state that value in just a few words. As with the critique, an appraisal should be based on criteria. We send students to eBay and give them a special antique desk to buy. Which is the best buy and why?



FNO Press Bookstore
Order online with a credit card


Written materials, art work and photography on this site are copyrighted by Jamie McKenzie and other writers, artists and photographers. Written materials on these pages may be distributed and duplicated if unchanged in format and content in hard copy only by school districts and universities provided there is no charge to the recipient. They may also be e-mailed from person to person. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.