“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” So Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher, allegedly excused himself once. Or perhaps it was Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw.
It’s witty, it’s ironic, it’s true: that’s why any of them might have said it.
Here is how I know that: I write for The Economist, and most of our articles are short. I’ve opined on the subject of optimal length in writing before, but in this context, let’s just say that it is the shortening that takes all of the time.
Because I have so little time, I got into the bad habit of not shortening, and not cleaning up, my emails. You see, there were too many emails, and I was too busy to take time for any one of them. (Bear with me. You’re supposed to find an irony building.)
But why were there so many emails in the first place? Oh yes, because all sorts of people (mainly PR people, but also others) are writing me emails. And those are all busy, busy, busy people, with very little time. So their emails are long and sloppy. They refer to an attachment that is missing. They invite me to an event on the wrong date, or omit the date, or the place, even as they somehow find paragraphs of other things to say.
So then, since we are all so very, very busy, we shoot the emails back and forth to clarify this and rectify that, and the threads grow and take more of our time, making us even busier and requiring us to write even faster, thus making our emails longer and sloppier….
So, for a few months, I’ve been trying an experiment. I respond less fast, and often not at all. When I do email, I take more time. I actually read through emails before I push Send. I check that phone numbers and dates are correct, and that all the information is there. I think about what is extraneous and what I can cut.
Lo, the threads are getting ever so slightly shorter, the iterations fewer, the decisions more decisive.
Fewer words → more meaning
Less activity → more action
To my surprise, I am finding that, by slowing down, I have more time. If, like Pascal, I need to write a letter, I might now be able to make it … shorter. I hope I can keep this up.