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Notes From a Writer's Desk: A Practical Lesson in Concision




This two-line, seven-syllable poem, titled “Mattina” (Morning), was penned by Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti in 1917 from the trenches of World War I. The poem translates to something like, “I am illuminated with immensity.” But the translation fails to convey the revelatory flash of Ungaretti’s lyric, a fleeting moment captured in the most essential words he can find while clinging to life in the bunkers of the front. This stark poem, like much of Ungaretti’s collection, is beyond translation because it captures something existential that is beyond language itself. At the (timeless) instant of revelation, words fail. 

It is a magical feat to convey in a mere seven syllables the sudden realization of “Mattina,” the critical moment of insight when the mind stares into the ungraspable chasm of existence laid bare, and, by the very feat of remaining intact, ascends ever so briefly to the infinite. If Ungaretti had written  A thousand lines, he could have expressed in no better way the poignancy, power, and significance of the poem, tragic and triumphant, melancholy and sublime all at once. More words would only be subtraction by addition.

There is a lesson in this poetic economy—a lesson I have had to learn the hard way, given as I am to verbosity. With all due apologies to grandiloquent nineteenth-century novelists, the ability to express complex ideas in few words is a special gift for any writer, no less the academic writer, leading not only to a greater clarity but also to a more compelling reading experience. Unlike in poetry or creative writing, however, academic writing must be couched in the proper rhetoric; arguments must be elucidated, not vaguely suggested. How, then, do we reach concise elegance / elegant concision? 

Peeling back the curtain on a poet’s process might be informative. Did the words of “Mattina” suddenly materialize on the page, the poet’s body nothing more than a conduit while his mind is transported outside of himself in the mad frenzy (furor poeticus) that Plato so mistrusted? Perhaps. But Even for poets, after the initial moment of generative inspiration, it typically takes long hours of rewriting and rearranging for a final product, an ode to brilliance, to coalesce on the page. 

Most narrative writing is further constrained by the necessity of coherence. Arriving at a coherent whole does not happen in a single draft, or in a single document. Rather, it entails writing all your words out, exploring all ideas and exhausting the capacity for verbal experimentation, before revisiting to bring structural order and to spruce up (by paring down) to pare down the syntax. This is no easy task. What seems so simple, the concise expression that beams with significance, must be earned through slow, painstaking reflection, a process that does not take kindly to shortcuts. Only after countless attempts to find the right words does the essential expression emerge, the invitation to critical thought that draws in your readers. And only then can you trim the non-essential that surrounds it.

When we read for the FWC, we frequently ask writers to add more context, more background, more clearly connected framing devices. But that does not mean that we are recommending a bloated narrative over a concise one. It only means that, in academic writing, an argument must advance within a clearly defined context, without which our messages might not resonate. We cannot assume our readers will have complete knowledge of the historical/theoretical/scholarly context within which we set our stories.

How much is too much, or too little? There is no one right answer. As in many aspects of life, it’s about finding a balance. To do so, a good strategy is to share your writing with multiple readers. If possible, set up writing exchanges with peers, so that you can stay on track and provide each other with useful feedback. It is beneficial to reach out not only to readers who are experts on the topic (your advisor, for example), but also to readers who have little familiarity with it. Can they follow the thread? Are they distracted by digressions? Can they accurately articulate your claims back to you? Read aloud to yourself as well, imagining that you are not the writer. This is all the more effective when you step away for a few days and return with a sense of distance. Does the writing bog down at any points? Conversely, are there any jumps in logic that require more explicit explanation? If you are struggling to revise your prose, think of writing that is particularly effective—and enjoyable to read—because of its precise pacing paired with eloquence, in your field and beyond. Are there rhetorical elements that you can borrow? If you can’t quite find the right adjective or verb to make the sentence pop, poetry might be a good place to look for inspiration. 

Finally, be bold in making cuts—from sentence-level edits to broader revisions. Deleting a word here or there—an extra adjective when only one will do, for example—strengthens prose, but so too does more extensive streamlining. Entire paragraphs or even sections might be redundant or too tangential to the main goals of the paper. To ease your mind, create a separate document where you can store all those homeless phrases, or a separate file where you can store previous versions of your documents (some writing platforms will do this for you). You might find yourself looking back at some point. You might even be able to turn that initial plan for a single paper into multiple papers. Ultimately, like a plant that needs pruning to thrive, your writing won’t suffer from the right kind of cutting—it will bloom in all its glory. 

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