Writing advice

From Henry Mensch on Facebook, this advice on the lifehacker (“Tips and downloads for getting things done”) site (by Adam Pash):

Email Writing Values: Concision, Concision, Concision (by Adam Pash)

Before we get started, I should preempt this post with a concise summary of the helpful suggestions below, in case you don’t want to wade through all that pesky text:

In your email, be brief and to the point.
Cut it down to subject only if you can with EOM.
For most email, try to keep it under five sentences.

What I noticed first was preempt, which is certainly the wrong word. Then the wordiness of the advice, going exactly against content of the advice. And, finally, the choice of concision rather than conciseness. Three very different considerations.

preempt. This verb has the generalized sense ‘act in advance to prevent or exclude something’, and that certainly isn’t what Pash had in mind. Preface would be the verb I’d use, but precede isn’t out of the question. In any case, preempt is a malapropism of one sort or another — a classical malaprop (the word Pash intended, but not one appropriate for the contexr) or a Fay-Cutler malaprop (an inadvertent error in word retrieval, based on phonological and morphological similarity).

Wordiness. “Before we start, I should [preface] this post with …” is a drastically inauspicious beginning for a posting about concision (or conciseness): it declares a preface twice, once in “before we start” and again in “I should [preface] this post with …” Now, saying things twice, in different words, isn’t always a bad idea — it can be a rhetorical strategy for emphasis, as in “concision, concision, concision” — but in this case, I can see no reason for hammering home an introductory flourish. “First, a concise summary of …”, or something along those lines, would do just fine.

concision, conciseness. Concision isn’t the noun I would have chosen, though it’s not in any sense wrong; to me, it feels stiff, learnèd, or technical, in contrast to the neutral conciseness. In company with me is Fowler (1926), who preferred conciseness and labeled concision a “literary critics’ word”, and Wilson’s Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993), which notes that the two words are essentially the same in meaning but that concision “is a very low frequency word today”.

Now there’s a problem, since MWDEU‘s (1989) account of the alternatives notes that “Concision appears in our files with a bit more frequency than conciseness.” This contradicts Wilson’s assessment of frequency, which was either off-the-cuff (representing his own preferred usage) or based on another set of files. However, such files tend to have a substantial bias towards variants that the staff readers feel are notable, so that minority variants can appear to be somewhat more frequent than actual majority variants.

Fortunately, there are now ways of looking at relative frequencies. Here’s a Google Ngram of the two variants:

You’ll see that conciseness was long the clearly preferred variant, but that it’s been declining steadily over the years, while concision has been rising only modestly — it’s worth noting that neither variant is especially common these days (suggesting that the topic is no longer of pressing interest) — so that though conciseness is still in the lead, concision is not substantially rarer than it; neither variant is remarkable vis-a-vis the other.

Summary: concision isn’t notable, but the other two features (the malaprop preempt, the wordy intro) are, and they make me wonder how dependable other advice from lifehacker is.


3 Responses to “Writing advice”

  1. Jan Freeman Says:

    It’s certainly not elegant writing, but … from the context, I think he might have meant “preempt” in the sense “make reading the post unnecessary”; follow the three little rules and you won’t have to “wade through all that pesky text” below that explains them further.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I agree. He doesn’t mean “preface”, he means “tl:dr”. He’s saying he’s going to give it to you quickly before /in case you stop reading his wall o’ text. It’s “preempt” because he’s doing this before you stop, instead of summarizing at the end. I’m not sure there’s a one-word verb for that. Maybe “preempt your leaving”?

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