Brevity Bias

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief…”
(Polonius, in Hamlet)

“People don’t read” and “Get to the point” are two of many common phrases that get bandied about when professionals set out to use written communications in a business setting. Whether you are writing a blog post, an instructions manual or, an internal memo or a corporate email, most of the advice you’ll get would fall firmly in the camp of brevity. This type of advice has its merit. Your readers are more likely to get through your message if it is succinct, and frankly, often if it is not, it is because your idea is not sufficiently clear in your own mind. Like the brilliant mathematician Blaise Pascale once wrote, it takes more time to write a shorter letter.

But there is a counter argument to be made. In a world of 140 character tweets, it is possible that we have gone over too far to the side of brevity. In Ev Williams’ quest to build a more thought-driven web, which lead to the founding of Medium, long-form writing had a central place. Pascale might have concurred that some letters, or treatise, take a longer parchment to be fully developed, and cannot be condensed further without losing some of their substance.

I love reading. I always have. My reading of science fiction, history, economics, technology and general literature defines who I am. I’ve always assumed if anyone was a bona-fide long form reader, that I was one.

Because I do the bulk of my non-book reading on the wonderful Pocket app, and through their API, it became possible for me to test this conviction.

It turns out that I am an avid article reader: In the last 16 months, I’ve read 3.34 million words, or the equivalent of 4.5 King James’ Authorized Bibles. One might say that I was immune to “People don’t read”.

But — it turns out I am not at all immune to “Get to the point”!

When I compared items within my pocket queue that I’ve read, with the ones still waiting to be read, there emerged a pattern: The average read article was 840 words long. The average unread article was 1111 words long, or a whopping 32% longer. The statistical significance of this difference was a staggering 99.99%. I definitely am more likely to actually read an article — even an article, mind you, that I have explicitly saved for reading later — just because it is brief.

The brevity bias in my own reading gave me pause.

Now, Shakespeareans will no doubt know that the quote we started with is something of a joke. Polonius is many things, but brief is not one of them. He just lengthens his tedium even further by purporting to be brief. But great long-form writers are nothing but tedious. “We’re the only Plain in the Sky”, just to name one example, is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and it’s as long as a fat novella. So given how great and enriching long form writing is, what does my little experiment mean?

In the end, I believe we bias for brevity because time is such a precious commodity, and we may get some dopamine released in our brains when we finish reading an article. But it’s the longer, more thoughtful pieces that are the reasons we even bother reading in the first place. So while it may make sense to go over your writing and trim in the edges, I wouldn’t focus on writing shorter articles just to win more readers.

Or else, we would be just as bad and pointless as dear old Polonius, only on the other side of wrong.