When it comes to words, less is more

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 10, 2006

One of my great fortunes is having an aunt, now retired from teaching, who taught me more about writing than any other teacher I have ever encountered.

My Aunt Mary Louise, Aunt “Weezie” as we call her, was not only a gifted writer and English teacher; she was an outstanding athlete as well having won numerous contests and competitions as a tennis star, golfer, and swimmer.

In fact, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s she served as the boy’s tennis coach at a public high school – long before feminists found their bearings.

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Referencing her pedagogical and coaching talents is intended to heighten the impact she has had on my life – something I am certain would surprise her since I have not really done a very good job of letting her know just how much she has meant to me over the years.

Perhaps the most significant thing she taught me about writing is that economy of words is more impressive than sagacity – i.e., endless blathering.

In contemporary parlance, we can sum it up in the quick phrase, “Less is more.”

“When you have something to write,” Aunt Weezie admonished me when I asked her to review one of my themes in high school, “Write it well, write it clearly, and write it quickly.”

It is also reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s characters in Hamlet, Polonius.

For those who need to be reminded, Polonius was the court gadfly and the father of Ophelia, young Hamlet’s love.

When pressed by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude for answers regarding Hamlet’s strange behavior, Polonius responds, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes I will be brief. Your noble son is mad…” In this context, “wit” means “wisdom,” and while Polonius is saturated with anything but brevity, this is one of Shakespeare’s clever devices – showing the impact of a concept from the embodiment of the antithesis of that concept.

The point is still made – things which have a lasting impact are those things which are clear, well stated, and briefly put.

I am certain that each of us has a memory which embodies this notion.

We have read poems or articles whose impact is permanent within our lives merely owing to the sheer concision of its statement.

Examples like, “Go and sin no more,” “Seek peace and pursue it,” “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” and one more contemporary epithet, “Just do it.”

Yet, we find such wisdom, as “wit”, in places we least expect it.

A vivid case comes to mind for me.

In 1975 I was appointed to my first head football coaching position in Newton, Kansas, a small town about twenty miles north of Wichita.

In the previous two years before I arrived they had lost twenty-two straight games.

In the previous ten years they had won a total of eight games.

Since they were successful in wrestling, basketball, track and baseball, I believed that they could win in football. The task was to sell the program.

I moved to Newton in February and put together a staff.

Newton High School had ended the previous year with a total of 22 boys on the football team and it was a school of 800 in grades 9-12.

I knew we had to go out and recruit players.

So beginning the first week in June, I would go out into the community and make in-home visits with each of the boys who had expressed some interest during our spring school visits.

I had every one of my assistants set appointments with his position players’ parents and we would visit for about a half-hour Monday through Thursday evenings during June, July and early August.

We visited about 200 homes during that time.

There were big homes, trailers, small bungalows, and farm homes – lots of farm homes.

There was one farm home that reminds of the theme for this column.

It was nestled at the end of a very long, dusty, dirt road.

It was a classic scene – a large house surrounded by some tall, robust trees which had been there since the house was built.

We arrived at this farm house just about sunset on a warm July evening. What impressed me the most was the quietness of the farm.

My assistant was driving and as we approached the big house I noticed a sign nailed to the biggest tree in the front of the house.

It had been there obviously a long time and had tilted so it was off-center.

The sign was worn with the tough Kansas winters and it had been hand painted.

The colors had faded from its original white to a crackled ivory.

Now, I have seen many signs which offer warnings about property canines, but this one has left an indelible dent in my memory.

It did not say, “Beware of the dog,” or something along those lines.

No, not this sign.

In a two word caveat embodying the essence of brevity, it simply read, “BAD DOG.”

And the first letter on each painted word had dripped during the drying process so that even its visual impact implied an ominous message.

That sign gave me such a start in its brief presentation and its serious message that I instructed my assistant to leave the car running as he went up to the front door to announce our arrival, with instructions to have the prospective player come to the car and

escort me to the house.

And now, every time I hear the phrase, “Brevity is the Soul of Wit,” my mind travels to that dusty farm road in Central Kansas with a sign containing two three-letter words – Bad Dog – and a message too ominous to waste with more words.

I got the message, too!

Less IS more when it comes to great messages.

-Dr. Arthur G. Ogden is the Demopolis Campus Director of Alabama Southern Community College.

All his degrees are in philosophy.

He can be reached at aogden@ascc.edu.