Better Words, Sometimes Fewer Words

We’re drowning in words. And this is a crisis because we need good words more than ever. I think that those of us who work with words are a big part of the problem (I am, I know). We need to roll up our sleeves and put in the serious sweat.

Anytime we can cut three words and replace them with 1, do it. Anytime it’s possible to turn a 30 minute sermon or lecture to 15 minutes, then by God make it happen. This is not always possible, and sometimes beautiful, truthful language needs lots of space to breathe. But if we writers or preachers or teachers don’t have the fire-in-the-gut that leads to that magical ingredient: piercing clarity, then perhaps our work is not finished.

Now, we don’t need to be perfectionists about this, and God knows there’s more than a few times for me when a Sunday or a deadline’s rolled around and I just have to go with the best I can do. But let’s make that our dead-level aim: to do our best. And our best, I’m convinced, is almost always going to be less/smaller/quieter than what our first impulse suggests.

I also think we’re drowning in nonsensical, eyes-glazing-over words because some of us just really like our words (a lot) and they somehow signal (or lead to, we hope) validation. So the more words, the more we feed that frenzied quest to be noticed. I get it. I want to be noticed. I want people to give me the thumbs up. I want people to think that what I have to say is worth tuning in for, and I cringe to think of how often I’ve offered sentences that were really just me jumping up and down for attention. But that’s a soul-killing game, let me tell you. And it never pays off. And in that lustful glut, we end us saying all kinds of things that we don’t even really mean or understand, all in our attempt to sound clever or catch the attention of the passing parade. Exhausting. For everyone.

And if you’ll allow me a moment more (am I not heeding my own advice here?), we have piles of superfluous words because some of us are working out our every anxiety on paper for the world to see. I’m all for honest writing (please, give us more), but there’s a difference between writing that’s human/real and writing that’s exhibitionist. The former is a gift to the reader/listener. The latter is selfishness masquerading as courage. And I fear we’ve created an entire industry out of this masquerading bit. If we’re going to claim honesty, then let’s get really honest about this.

At any rate, for those of you who work with words, I’m your brother-in-arms. Thank you for bleeding on the page. And for those of you who read or listen to our words, thank you for keeping us honest. We’re in perilous times, and I’m with Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” And words, I believe, are (at their best) a crucial part of this beauty.

5 responses to Better Words, Sometimes Fewer Words

  1. Ha! I was just trying to end my stroll around the writer’s block with with superfluous self defeating words just to get my fingers warmed up. I think I’ll hold off on the self pity and deprecation a while and give measured words later. Pray for me bro. Thanks!

  2. Jeremy Stopford July 3, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    After my first sermon, I excitedly called my Dad in Florida to tell him about it. He asked, “how long did you preach?” I advised him “about 45 minutes – the time the church wanted me to supply.” He said, a la Winn Collier, “if you can’t say what you want to say in 20 minutes, then…don’t speak at all.” Hmmm. Thanks for the encouraging BRIEF words! Jeremy

  3. Hello Winn,
    Thought I might edit your latest post for you:
    “We’re drowning in words. Anytime we can cut three words to one, do it. If we writers or preachers or teachers
    do not have piercing clarity, then perhaps our work is not finished. Dostoevsky once wrote ‘Beauty will save the world’. And words with piercing clarity, I believe, are a crucial part of this beauty!”

words have a way of making friends. drop a few here.