Lessons in (Writing) Brevity from Borges

26 December, 2022

Recently, I was silently lamenting the fact that I haven’t been re-reading enough of the works of Jorge Luis Borges. So, to help remedy that I pulled a collection of his non fiction off a bookshelf and started leafing through it.

I was struck by the book and film reviews that Borges wrote. Many of them are masterpieces of brevity. Few are over three or four paragraphs in length, but Borges packed a lot into that space. In fact, the best of the reviews read like they’re condensed versions of essays from The New York Review of Books. The writing is that strong, and the thinking is that clear.

Take, for example, this excerpt from his review of William Faulkner’s novel The Unvanquished:

In earlier works, Faulkner played powerfully with time, deliberately shuffling chronological order, deliberately complicating the labyrinths and ambiguities. He did it to such an extent that there were those who insisted that his virtues as a novelist were entirely derived from those involutions. This novel — direct, irresistible, straightforward — will destroy that suspicion.

Believe it or not, that passage comprises a quarter of the review!

Think about how that kind of brevity can benefit your writing.

Achieving That Kind of Brevity

The key is distillation. Breaking what you’re writing about down to the bare essentials.

Look at the core argument or core fact that you want to put forward. Then consider how simply you present that idea without thoroughly diluting it.

From there, write. Don’t try to pretty it up with fancy words or long descriptions or allusions and imagery. Keep that kernel in the front of your mind.

And think of your audience. Do they know enough about that subject that you can get away with not giving them too much, if any, background? If so, your job is that much easier. If not, you’re going to have to get creative while staying brief. Perhaps a one- or two-sentence overview of a concept or an idea. Again, you’ll be distilling that concept or idea down to its essentials.

Chances are, no matter how hard you try, your first go will be a bit long. That’s what editing is for. Pare down and rewrite.

Being as brief as Borges isn’t easy. It takes a lot of practice. And while you may never be quite adept as the great Argentine writer, trying to achieve that kind of brevity will definitely improve your writing.

Scott Nesbitt