Tortoise Tuesday: Puzzling Over Concision

When it comes to concision, I have a lot to say. The term has been on my mind lately for a number of reasons, including recent discussions at The Daily Princetonian, papers I have encountered in the Writing Center, and this joke (with which I eventually lost my patience). Speaking of patience, even the most dedicated readers have a finite amount — an unfortunate reality that the writer must confront. Thus, the good paper is not inundated with information but rather carefully curated so as to present only what is essential and welcome. No reader will sit by happily as their minutes are wasted, sifting through loads of detail and trying to make sense of it all. Similarly, they will not hesitate to toss the piece aside if, say, the author is dallying about and never getting to the point.

To practice what I preach, I will restrict myself to a discussion of concision as it appears in my role as a member of The Daily Princetonian. But I’m no news writer; instead, I am Co-Head Editor of the Puzzles section, which publishes new crosswords three times a week. There’s a lot that goes into crossword construction, such as the creation of a theme, the filling of the grid, and finally the writing of the clues. It is at this final step of the process — the writing of the clues — that concision comes into play. For one thing, there is only so much space on the page of the print edition. All sections of the paper are ultimately restricted to the space they have been allotted, and, for Puzzles, that means one half-page of clues. In a similar way, students are frequently subject to word counts and page counts imposed by their professors. This means that they must select the punchiest quotes, deliver precise analysis, and stay within the scope of their thesis. All of this will help create a paper that is concise and impactful.

More important than the physical limitations of the print newspaper, however, is the principle behind having short and powerful crossword clues. A good clue is a perfect example of writing that offers neither too little nor too much information. Clues that are too short might leave the solver stumped, while overly-detailed clues are likely too easy. The analogy breaks down a bit when you consider wordplay and other trickery, but your average trivia-based clue strikes a perfect balance between scarcity and surplus. [Actor] is too little a clue for MATT, while [First name of Damon who played Mark Watney in “The Martian”] is too much. The most common clue is [Actor Damon], which avoids both of these extremes by being concise and effective without including unnecessary information.

Of course, the goal of a crossword is inherently different from that of academic writing. Crosswords are meant to leave the solver with a bit of confusion; this is certainly not the case for most essays! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the importance of being concise and deliberate with information. The reader is a finicky beast who does not do well in the face of discursive onslaughts.

–Owen Travis, ’24