This essay is meant to be light and entertaining. Don't read too much into my "woe is me," style. :-) Just messing around with my thoughts. That's fun sometimes, ya know? If you don't have time to read the whole thing, make sure you read the Steinbeck passage, his words are amazing.
What's your business writing style?
On Being Laconic
Hello, my name is Lisa, and I am a chronic laconic writer. In the winter of 1998, my manager told me that I was laconic. I had no idea what laconic meant at the time and took her statement as a compliment. I looked up laconic and discovered that it meant I used very few works. My boss was remarking on my style of writing business reports and presentation materials. She preferred communication that, to me, seemed a bit drawn out and academic. In my defense, I think the attention spans of the leaders whom I was trying to influence were also laconic.
I am a laconic writer and on some level I am proud of my economical use of words. Why take up paragraphs when a sentence will do just fine? Why use pages when well-crafted bullet points help people zoom in on the most important messages? Poets make big and layered impressions with their few words. Even a tiny poem can tell a story. Laconicism is not a bad style when working on a 700-word article or an executive summary explaining why the company should scrap performance appraisals. Leaders have told me that my writing is clear and well organized.
I began writing my first book in 2003. It was to be 60,000 words, which would become a 250-page book. The task was daunting; how could I ever fill those pages? Each chapter went through many blossomings. A day before I was to send in the manuscript I found myself 3,000 words short and thought I could not write another sentence. I was wrong, of course, and found the words. I have written five books and struggled to fill each one.
I wonder if being laconic is a sickness or a learned habit. Does my mind think differently than other, more descriptive writers? And descriptive is not the right word for it either. I don’t know what is the opposite of laconic. Long. I think it might be something a bit more than habit, something about the way my brain is wired. I believe this because I have a hard time reading the anti-laconic style of writing. I can take and appreciate a little bit, but books full of longness are tough to get through. I admire the craft involved in a lovingly composed paragraph, I do. When I think about extraordinary anti-laconicism, a passage in Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez comes to mind:
The wind blew so and the water was so cold and ruffled that we did not stay ashore for very long. On board, we put down the baited bottom nets as usual to see what manner of creatures were crawling about there. When we pulled up one of the nets, it seemed to be very heavy. Hanging to the bottom of it on the outside was a large horned shark. He was not caught, but had gripped the bait through the net with a bulldog hold and he would not let go. We lifted him unstruggling out of the water and up onto the deck, and still he would not let go. This was about eight o’clock in the evening. Wishing to preserve him, we did not kill him, thinking he would die quickly. His eyes were barred, rather like goat’s eyes. He did not struggle at all, but lay quietly on the deck, seeming to look at us with a baleful, hating eye. The horn, by the dorsal fin, was clean and white. At long intervals his gill-slits opened and closed but he did not move. He lay there all night, not moving only opening his gill-slits at great intervals. The next morning he was still alive, but all over his body spots of blood had appeared. By this time Sparky and Tiny were horrified by him. Fish out of water should die, and he didn’t die. His eyes were wide and for some reason had not dried out, and he seemed to regard us with hatred. And still at intervals his gill-slits opened and closed. His sluggish tenacity had begun to affect all of us by this time. He was a baleful personality on the boat, a sluggish, gray length of hatred, and the blood spots on him did not make him more pleasant. At noon we put him into the formaldehyde tank, and only them did he struggle for a moment before he died. He had been out of the water for sixteen or seventeen hours, had never fought or flopped a bit. The fast and delicate fishes like tunas and mackerels waste their lives out in a complete and sudden flurry and die quickly. But about this shark there was a frightful quality of stolid, sluggish endurance. He had come aboard because he had grimly fastened on the bait and would not release it, and he lived because he would not release life.
I imagine a laconic version of this passage and know it would not have conveyed Steinbeck’s image and the power of this scene. The lengthy description slows down the timing of the passage, which mimics the shark’s long waiting and death. While reading it, we feel the shark’s determination and the horror of those onboard.
What is my writing is missing by being laconic? Is my bluntness a disservice to you, the reader? Probably. Reflecting on the Steinbeck passage, I can see that his breath by breath commentary and anthropormorphization of the shark’s feelings are compelling and fascinating and there’s no way to do this in an abbreviated way. He’s there, he’s feeling the pain, hate, and guilt. I have been doing an efficient job observing scenes but have not become emotionally entrenched in them.
This business of laconicism is all very interesting to think about. As I tap out these words, I notice an urge to bring this essay to a close. If I did so, my part of the essay would nearly be eclipsed in length to Steinbeck’s quoted passage. Laconic indeed. Perhaps my ailment has been exasperated by experiences on high school and college debate teams. During one-on-one speech competitions, being expeditious and efficient with words helped me win. I relished delivering the single stinging sentence that hammered the last nail in my opponent’s coffin. In summary, because the intent of this law is unambiguous and the positive aim of the company has been conceded by my opponent, there is only one logical conclusion; the company’s action were in good faith and in accordance with the spirit of the law. I won a lot.
Perhaps my focus is askew. Instead of zeroing in on the end points, conclusions, or grand finales, I ought to linger in the journey. Get into the thick of the tale, whatever it is. When I think of my favorite books, the endings are often anticlimactic and unwelcome. I prefer getting to know and love or hate the characters and the circumstances in which they struggle and thrive. Carl Hiaasen’s Tourist Season is a masterpiece of quirky and colorful scenes. I hoped the book would go on forever, but all great stories must end. The best anti-laconicists linger in the journey and enjoy taking side trips that add color to our story.
Is it enough to write: the fourth generation chile farmer prayed for just enough, but not too much, rain because this balance affected the yield and heat the peppers. Or would it be better to note that in four generations, Paul had learned that the best peppers were just a bit starved. The stress from dry conditions heightened the pepper’s heat. Last season’s 13 inches of rain improved yield of the popular Big Jim green chile peppers, but it also reduced his pepper’s spiciness. His customers craved heat. He could charge more for a hot Big Jim; much more. With only 8 inches of precipitation this year, the tomatoes would suffer and the peppers would be amazing. Just enough rain to ensure a good yield and extraordinary flavor.
OK, I get it. I’m ready to jump on a plane and order up a green chile cheeseburger, heavy on the chile. The antidote for a chronic laconic writing affliction is patience and play. Color, texture, and complexity do not pop onto the page in neat and tiny packages; they need to be fed, watered, and given the room to grow. This is an interesting metaphor to use to describe great writing because I very much like propagating seeds and raising tender little plants into lush expressions of their kind. I talk to my seedlings and encourage them to be brave and invincible. Ironically, I have only tried and failed when it comes to my beloved chile pepper. Basil, lavender, parsley, and cilantro have been much more responsive to my coaching and coaxing.
Now you see, I am feeling positively chatty.