Brevity=Wit Entry #9

January 18th, 2010 by Wordsman

This week on Brevity=Wit, we take a break from our more literary investigations to examine a different genre of composition: giving directions.

The field of direction-giving is one in which brevity is perhaps even more important than in literature.  Lengthy directions are confusing and impractical; as you’re driving to your destination, you don’t want to be holding up a direction sheet the size of a newspaper (since this concept may be difficult for some to understand, think of it instead as being the size of about 30 iPhones) in front of your windshield.  The person being guided does not want to know about landmarks that are no longer there, or how to get to other places that are sort of on the way, or how it would be possible to get there if it weren’t for all this construction.  Keep it short and sweet.

For your further education, here is an example I once heard of how NOT to give directions:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could”

And, if you can believe it, it goes on like that for about three more paragraphs.  These directions, given by a guy named Bob, are entirely unhelpful.  First off, directions should not be seasonal.  Just because the wood was yellow when you went there in October doesn’t mean it still will be when you’re telling me how to get there in February.  Second, there is absolutely no reason to discuss your feelings about a route.  Tell me that you tried both ways and one didn’t work, or that the other path is a decent alternative if you’re not in a hurry and want to avoid the highway.  Don’t tell me that you felt sorry for a road.

Thirdly, as you’ve probably noticed, our friend Bob presents us with a fork in the road and then doesn’t say which way to go. He does get to the topic eventually, in paragraph four, but even then his description is useless.  “The one less traveled by?”  How am I supposed to know?  What if the Department of Transportation came through and paved it since you were there?  C’mon, Bob.

Now, in this day and age, you could say that the art of giving directions is no longer necessary, that you can just go to Google Maps and type in “the yellow wood” and you’re all set.  But some people don’t fully trust internet directions.  Some still want to hear it from the mouth of someone who has been there, and if nothing else, Bob does convince you, at length, that he has been there.  For those people, I have prepared these succinct instructions:

“At Yellow Wood, the road splits.  Turn left.  Actually, you could go right, as long as you still get on the turnpike, but left is easier.”

Not being late to your job interview because you spent hours sitting in the woods wondering which way to go?  That’s what really makes all the difference.

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