Words worth their weight

I’ve written before about economy in writing. I believe that, often, the way to go is to make each word count, rather than throwing a big mixed bag of them at the reader in the hope that some stick.

800px-Leonidas_King_of_the_SpartansSo here’s my favourite example of economical writing. It comes not from literature but from ancient history and the dry wit of the war machine which was Sparta.

In 346BC, the mighty Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, had used the power of his imperial armies to conquer most of the Greek territories and finally turned his attention to the Spartan city-state. He offered them a deal, they could avoid the devastation which would surely follow by surrendering and submitting to his rule. He sent them a letter:

“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartans replied to this with a letter of their own. When Philip opened it he found it contained just a single word:


How ever many thousands of words they wrote, the Spartans could not have been more eloquent than that. Philip considered his options, maybe read over the letter from the Spartans again a few times, then avoided Sparta entirely, as did Alexander during his great empire building mission some years later.

That one word, ‘if’ is the first example of what has become known as a laconic reply – Laconia being the name of the lands around Sparta.

So I say again, you don’t need to say a lot to make an impact, you just need to say the right thing.

You’ll struggle to find a modern novelist who doesn’t weigh his or her words carefully I think, but I’ve been struck that some novelists who started out as poets seem the most inclined to write in this spare way. Example? James Dickey. He was already an American poet of some note when he wrote Deliverance. It’s a book I would recommend to you as it’s beautifully written. It has a prose style you might describe as sparse, it does the job wonderfully, but without adornment. It seems Dickey’s time as a poet had taught him to write not in a florid, showy way – but economically, like the Spartans.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

15 thoughts on “Words worth their weight”

  1. Be concise. Be precise. This is one of my maxims and what I struggle to teach my students too.
    I love this post, Chris. What immense menace and power that one ‘if’ conveys.

    Mind you, what I admire now and what I have done in the past are very different. I used to love Henry James and my first book shows this.

    My tastes have changed. I’m about to do a re-edit…

  2. An interesting theory about poets being less florid.

    I started out (ignoring English Language homework at school) writing poetry rather than prose and do not regard my prose as sparse; however, much of my poetry is not sparse either. Or maybe I am just the exception that proves the rule.

  3. Another great post, Chris! I like how this exchange reminds us to be confident. Poor Philip using “if” instead of “when” reminds me to take wording seriously.

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