On Brevity

February 18, 2008 | 3 books mentioned 3 2 min read

In 1886, Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to his brother enumerating the following requirements for his own writing:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truth descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality; flee stereotypes
  6. Compassion

I like to present this list at the start of any fiction writing class because it’s wonderful conversation fodder. Everyone has one they cherish (for me, it’s compassion), and one they revile (as my students recently pointed out to me: Can anyone every be totally objective? Isn’t the fleeing of stereotypes stereotypical?). After a discussion of this list, I have my students replace one or two of Chekhov’s rules with their own. Popular answers include: passion; avoidance of adverbs; write what you know; write what you don’t know; and humor. I always add “Bold use of metaphor” – whatever that means. If I were to revise Chekhov’s list, I’d take the “extreme” out of “extreme brevity.” Too wordy.

Perhaps Chekhov hadn’t read Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, in which he advised, “Extreme brevity will degenerate into epigrammatism.” I have a feeling that Ernest Hemingway did catch this warning, though, for when he was challenged to write a story in six words, he took old Poe to task with this:

“For sale: baby shoes, never used.”

I love Hemingway’s story – how it attests to the power of implication! For a long time, I thought it very sad, until author Antoine Wilson schooled me otherwise. Now I appreciate it even more.

covercoverAs pointed out on this blog a few days ago, Smith, the online magazine devoted to storytelling and personal narratives, is publishing a compendium of 6-word memoirs by various authors (some of them were previously compiled in the 2007 edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading.) My favorites include Drew Peck’s “Ex-wife and contractor now have house” (which follows in Hemingway’s footsteps of implication), and Bob Redman’s “Being a monk stunk. Better gay” (for its musical qualities). All entries are fun, and they make you want to try writing one.

I myself am terrible at the six-word story, autobiographical or not. Perhaps that’s the real reason why I don’t want the “extreme” in my “brevity.” I use as few words as a story requires – but sometimes a story requires a lot of words. Isn’t that what writers of the long short story – such as Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg – might tell you? But Poe warns against this, too, for “the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable.”

Uh oh.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. O, to be able to avoid the adverb, completely. Unluckily, I've fallen deeply under the spell Henry James so securely casts. I loved Wings of the Dove, wholeheartedly, and its use of the adverb, especially. As James writes in the introduction, I think correctly, one must be a dupe "to be at all measurably a master." How fine that "measurably," finally!

  2. Avoidance of adverbs is a great rule — one that has made a big difference in my own writing. I learned it in college, but was reminded of it in your workshop.

    As for the six word story, I love Antoine Wilson's description of Hemingway's never-worn baby shoes: "the most pathetic footwear in the history of so-called flash fiction."

    If I had to write a six-word story, I think I would plagiarize an Onion headline to do it. Consider this recent one: "Local Housewife Overcomes Rubbermaid Addiction. Or: "Web-Browser History Chronicles Couple's Unspoken Desires."

  3. I love and admire a well placed adverb, all the more reason to get rid of the weakling ones. Paria, remember Maggie's line, "The paper napkins hurt him deeply" (I think that was it). That 'deeply' was so necessary, and thus terrific.

    I love those Onion headlines!

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