The Difference: Obese vs Lean Writing

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; it is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore benefit comes from what is there; usefulness comes from what is not.”

― Excerpt from the Tao Te Ching.


On November 19, 1863, two speeches were given to a crowd of 15,000 people in Pennsylvania. One was delivered by a man considered the best orator of the time, the other speaker’s voice was labelled as “shrill”. On that day, one of these speakers delivered one of history’s most memorable speeches.

The first speech was given by Edward Everett, the outstanding orator. He was the main attraction. He spoke brilliantly. And continued speaking brilliantly… for over a whopping two-hours. Today, Dennis Kimetto holds the world-record for the marathon. He could have finished a marathon before Everett finished his speech.


The second speech lasted only two minutes. Dennis Kimetto wouldn’t have run 800 metres before this speech was finished. This speech was short. But to the point. It had power. Consider its sacred line; “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth”. The man speaking was Abraham Lincoln, delivering his infamous Gettysburg Address.


When writing, our aim is to communicate our point in the absolute least amount of written words that is humanly possible for us as few words possible. Obese writing is dull. Lean writing is elegant.


Peter Thiel founded PayPal, was the first outside investor in Facebook, and wrote the #1 NYT bestseller Zero To One. Thiel asks; “If you’re planning to do something with your life, if you have a 10-year plan of how to get there, you should ask: Why can’t you do this in 6 months?”  We can use this idea. When we write something in 500 words, we can ask ourselves, could I say the same thing in 50 words?


We want to adopt the mindset of an engineer: “To the optimist, the glass is half full. To the pessimist, the glass is half empty. To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.”  


Specific words are signals that needless words have snuck into our writing. These are; take, put, do, have, and make. For example; have perseverance could be persevere; make a guarantee could be guarantee; and take a knee could be kneel.


I imagine that it’s helpful to recognise that the quality of words, not only the quantity, creates powerful writing. For example, cruel has more power than mean, sublime holds greater emotion than happy, and eternity creates more depth than forever.


Omitting needless words does not mean removing every word that isn’t absolutely necessary. It is a principle to understand, not a tyrannical rule to mindlessly follow.


There is a joke about a manufacturing plant manager who wanted to increase the efficiency of his plant. “First I fired 10 employees, and the rest worked harder and production remained the same. So I fired twenty. Then forty. But as I was firing the 100th employee, the rest quit on me!” This jokes teaches us to omit needless words, but not omit the words we need. Otherwise we will not be able to communicate our point, just as the plant manager was not able to operate his plant.


Some words, which are not needed, are kept because they make something clearer or make a sentence sound better.


For example, in his Gettysburg address, Lincoln referred to the patch of ground where his soldiers died fighting; “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” If we followed the advice above, we would change Lincoln’s speech from ‘have consecrated’ to ‘consecrate’. By using the extra word have, it lengthens the time spent reflecting on the fact that men have died for the notion that all men are created equal. We want our writing to be lean, not malnourished.


Elegant writing is born from knowing what to leave in and what to omit.