Winston Churchill Praises the Virtue of “Brevity” in Memos to His Staff: Concise Writing Leads to Clearer Thinking

George Orwell and Win­ston Churchill didn’t agree on much. For exam­ple, while Orwell wrote with deep sym­pa­thy about coal min­ers in The Road to Wigan Pier, Churchill, as home sec­re­tary, bru­tal­ly crushed a miner’s strike in Wales. Orwell’s ear­ly years as “an appa­ratchik in the last days of the empire… left him with a hatred of author­i­ty and impe­ri­al­ism,” writes Richard Eil­ers. Churchill was a com­mit­ted impe­ri­al­ist all his life, instru­men­tal in pro­long­ing a famine in British India that killed “at least three mil­lion peo­ple.”

Impor­tant­ly for history’s sake, they agreed on the need to con­front, rather than appease, the Nazis, against both the British left and right of the 1930s. “At a time not unlike today,” says jour­nal­ist Tom Ricks, “when peo­ple were won­der­ing whether democ­ra­cy was sus­tain­able, when a lot of peo­ple thought you need­ed author­i­tar­i­an rule, either from the right or the left, Orwell and Churchill, from their very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, come togeth­er on a key point. We don’t have to have author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment.”

Maybe some­what less important—but stren­u­ous­ly agreed upon nonethe­less by these two figures—was the need for clear, con­cise prose that avoids obfus­ca­tion. In Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage—an essay rou­tine­ly taught in col­lege com­po­si­tion classes—Orwell describes polit­i­cal­ly mis­lead­ing writ­ing as over­stuffed with “pre­ten­tious dic­tion” and “mean­ing­less words.” These are, he writes, signs of a “deca­dent… civ­i­liza­tion.” Churchill has had at least as much influ­ence as Orwell on a cer­tain kind of polit­i­cal writ­ing, though not the kind most of us read often.

In 1940, Churchill issued a memo to his staff titled “Brevi­ty.” He did not express con­cerns about creep­ing fas­cism in bureau­crat­ic com­mu­niques, but decried the prob­lem of wast­ed time, “while ener­gy has to be spent in look­ing for the essen­tial points.” He ends up, how­ev­er, say­ing some of the same things as Orwell, in few­er words.

I ask my col­leagues and their staffs to see to it that their Reports are short­er.

  1. The aim should be Reports which set out the main points in a series of short, crisp para­graphs.
  2. If a Report relies on detailed analy­sis of some com­pli­cat­ed fac­tors, or on sta­tis­tics, these should be set out in an Appen­dix.
  3. Often the occa­sion is best met by sub­mit­ting not a full-dress Report, but an Aide-mem­oire con­sist­ing of head­ings only, which can be expand­ed oral­ly if need­ed.
  4. Let us have an end of such phras­es as these: “It is also of impor­tance to bear in mind the fol­low­ing con­sid­er­a­tions…,” or “Con­sid­er­a­tion should be giv­en to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of car­ry­ing into effect….” Most of these wool­ly phras­es are mere padding, which can be left out alto­geth­er, or replaced by a sin­gle word. Let us not shrink from using the short expres­sive phrase, even if it is con­ver­sa­tion­al.

Reports drawn up on the lines I pro­pose may at first seem rough as com­pared with the flat sur­face of offi­cialese jar­gon. But the sav­ing in time will be great, while the dis­ci­pline of set­ting out the real points con­cise­ly will prove an aid to clear­er think­ing.

The mes­sage “cas­cad­ed through the civ­il ser­vice,” writes Lau­ra Cowdry at the UK Nation­al Archives. A 1940 arti­cle in the Times picked up the sto­ry. But the prob­lem per­sist­ed, as it does today and maybe will till the end of time (or until machines start to do all our writ­ing for us). Frus­trat­ed, Churchill issued anoth­er admo­ni­tion, short­er even than the first, in 1951.

Offi­cial papers are too long and too dif­fuse. In 1940 I called for brevi­ty. Evi­dent­ly I must do so again. I ask my col­leagues to read what I wrote then… and to make my wish­es known to their staffs.

These mem­os, Cowdry notes, “may shed some light onto gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions work of the past,” and on the Churchillian style that may have tak­en hold for decades in gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, as well as—of course—far beyond them. His emphat­ic state­ments also artic­u­late “key ele­ments of good com­mu­ni­ca­tion that would res­onate with the think­ing of any mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tor,” whether Orwell, Kurt Von­negut, or Cor­mac McCarthy, who has become a sought-after sci­en­tif­ic edi­tor for his strict min­i­mal­ism.

Churchill did not seem over­ly con­cerned with wordi­ness as a polit­i­cal prob­lem. Orwell did not approach the prob­lem philo­soph­i­cal­ly. That task fell to the Log­i­cal Pos­i­tivists of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. In his attempt to explain the wordi­ness of both under­grad­u­ates and world-renowned thinkers, “neo-Pos­i­tivist” philoso­pher David Stove goes so far as to ascribe over­writ­ing to “defects of char­ac­ter… such things as an inabil­i­ty to shut up; deter­mi­na­tion to be thought deep; hunger for pow­er; fear, espe­cial­ly the fear of an indif­fer­ent uni­verse….”

Some­thing to con­sid­er, maybe, when you’re look­ing at your next draft email, Face­book com­ment, or Slack mes­sage, and won­der­ing whether it actu­al­ly needs to be an essay….

via Bob Rae

Relat­ed Com­ment:

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writ­ing Clear and Tight Prose

Nov­el­ist Cor­mac McCarthy Gives Writ­ing Advice to Sci­en­tists … and Any­one Who Wants to Write Clear, Com­pelling Prose

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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