How both enough and a scarcity of time makes for better writing
Our professor had just handed out a syllabus for the Fall Term. She seemed uncomfortable, fidgeting with a paper copy in her hands, and avoided eye contact with the class. Hesitantly, she said, “This is a three-page summary of what we will cover this semester. I apologize. I only completed it last night before I went to bed.”
I could see the confusion on my classmates’ faces. What was she upset about? It seemed like a perfectly good outline, and certainly not any different than the other ones received that same day. And then, she dropped the punchline, “If I’d had more time, it would have been shorter.”
As I reflect on this experience now, I expect that this introduction was in part theatrics. She had a lesson to teach that term, which was that any kind of content — from a syllabus to a novel — only needs a certain number of words to get the job done.
In contrast to other instructors, who set expectations on word counts, she insisted that — given enough time — we could all submit our assignments on a single printed page. And that is precisely what I did — I spent more time writing one page for her than I did for all my other subjects.
While this experience was 35 years ago, I now consider my former professor a prescient sage. With all the writing I do for websites and online channels, the principle of ‘more time makes for shorter articles’ serves me well.
But having more time can also be a problem. I have an overly analytical personality, which means that I can never think of the right thing to say at any given moment — I have to think it through, process the information, dream about it. I’m terrible in debates.
The French have an expression, authored by philosopher Denis Diderot: l’esprit de l’escalier. Literally, it means ‘the wit of the bottom of the staircase’, which describes a phenomenon that describes me perfectly. I’m one of those people who thinks of the ideal comeback when I am halfway down the stairs on the way out of the meeting.
A good example comes from the television comedy Seinfeld in an episode where a main character, George Costanza, is stuffing his face full of shrimp at an event. His colleague sarcastically shouts, “Hey George, the ocean called; they’re running out of shrimp”. George obsesses over an appropriately snarky reply, which he ultimately delivers after the comeback moment has passed.
Suffice to say, timing matters. While lots of time allows me to iron out wrinkles and be more concise in my writing, publishing in a timely manner is even more important. I call this reader-centred priority ‘The Shrimp Test’. Others say, ‘time-to-market’.
My calendar has ‘Medium Mondays’ scheduled for an entire morning to work out the articles I have planned for months. The combination of having both enough (‘more time makes for shorter articles’) and a scarcity of time (‘The Shrimp Test’) is the balance that works for me.