Smart Brevity
Roy Schwartz, Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei

I've read smarter and briefer. It's not entirely terrible, but it'd probably be better to read Strunk instead.


This book is the same thing repeated again and again, which is: write less, because people aren't paying attention. While there are some redeeming factors, it's a battle cry for content's race to the bottom. Yes, we can shorten our writing because "nobody is reading that much anymore", but what about writing something more interesting instead?

The experience of reading this book is maddening. The style itself encourages you to skim it, so skim it I inevitably did. It felt like it should have been a 500-word article, not a book.

Also, the layout and the style of the text itself is a massive pain to read. I was constantly jumping between headings and bullets when I would rather have read a few good, tight, well-written paragraphs of prose. But that's just it, isn't it: writing like that is much harder.

Nevertheless, I can't argue with the core message: most writing is full of crap, and everyone should edit more. All the same... if you want a truly good book about writing well and with vigorous brevity, read Strunk instead.

Why do we need smart brevity?

The authors argue that our attention spans aren't worse, but that we're assaulted with more things vying for our attention. The best way to cut through is with shorter, punchier writing.

'Strong words, shorter sentences, arresting teases, simple visuals and smartly organized ideas transform writing from unnoticed to vital-and remembered.' (Page 12)

[Can be argued that this has always been the case. Surely the trick is actually having something interesting to say in the first place?]

What is smart brevity?

Smart brevity is a brand name for a style of writing that makes liberal use of to-the-point headlines, short sentences, and bullet points.

The authors break it down into four core components:

  1. A strong "tease" headline (the bait)
  2. A single lede sentence
  3. The context, usually with a "why it matters" headline
  4. The choice to go deeper (i.e. further context, usually chunked into bullet points)

You can see this in action in any Axios article.

The author cites how the Smart Brevity style was adopted to help Trump parse CIA briefs. Ah, good: the ideal target for this writing style is, er, 45. Great.

I think that's it. That's literally it. That's the whole book. There's other anecdotes, and arguments for why it's a good style, and Smart Brevity when applied to other things (like emails, presentations, internal comms etc), but that's really it.

More of this, but in your inbox.

I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

Let me read it first