Living

Brevity is not my goal

As I have said elsewhere, I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. The writing is a secondary decision and a distant one at that.

However, I learned long ago that some people discount what you have to say if you do not couch it in terms and frameworks they accept as authoritative. So, I try to get the grammar somewhat right, anyway. As much as I wish I did not care what other people with more education than me, more credentials than me, and more platform than me… I do.

Deep inside is still the eight-year-old kid who was laughed at by a grownup for mispronouncing the word “proprietor” as I had only read the word and never heard it said. I am yet to forgive that guy. Honestly, I am yet to try. It’s on my to-do list. Admittedly, it’s at the bottom of the list, but it’s on there.

We carry so many ghosts around with us.

So, anyway, I worry about my grammar. And spelling. And usage. And diction. I use several tools, including spell check and Grammarly, to do final passes on anything I send out into the world to make sure I got all my subject/verb agreement and tenses correct. And the fights I have had with the punctuation robots over how many commas should be in a sentence are legion. Generally, the robot thinks I should use less, errr, fewer, unless I don’t think I should have one, in which case, it thinks I am wrong.

To be clear – I see them as advisors. “Here is a potential problem,” they say, and then I decide on whether to take the advice. I do perhaps one time out of three.

In almost every paragraph of any length, it will highlight at least one sentence and tell me that it is too wordy and should be rewritten. (Ironically, including the one you just read.) But the grammar robots do not understand that brevity is not my goal. Telling a good story is.

A good story needs to be understood, and proper punctuation and grammar can aid in that understanding. But it is far from the only requirement.

A good story should connect with the emotions of the audience. It should be an invitation into empathy, a connection with what is important in our humanity, a point of sameness that we can alight on together in a tumultuous world. It’s hard to do that when reducing the word count is your primary aim.

Recently, the James Webb telescope released pictures from deep space, showing us galaxies and solar systems we did not know existed. The picture accompanying this post is one of them. Here is how NASA described the picture in the Alt-Text, which is the description it provides for screen readers:

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue.

The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

I have two things to say about that description. No, three things.

  • Whoever wrote that cared about the reader. It’s stunning in its description and care.
  • It is not brief. Most alt-text is a sentence or two long.
  • The grammar robot freaked out over that paragraph of text.

People love to harp on Strunk and White’s admonition to omit needless words, but who decides if they are needless? I think clarity and connection are much better goals than brevity.

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