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Brevity Is the Soul: 13 Quotes Celebrating Authors Who Keep It Simple

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Editor's Note:

Who doesn’t love a good quote? For more like this, check out our quotations archive.

February may be the shortest month, but it takes far less time to write “May”on a rent check. What a terrific excuse to celebrate the elusive virtue of brevity, a quality so many authors have harnessed into pure literary nitroglycerin. Young writers are still brow-beaten into keeping it simple by Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which implores us to comb every sentence for unnecessary words to eliminate. As we get older, this is easier to accomplish: We have no time to waste on extraneous thought, and we don’t imagine anyone else does, either.

What follows are instances of authors who managed to catch lightning in a bottle, channeling huge ideas in just a few words, or who respected the limits of our oh-so-limited attention spans. Their words will echo through eternity, all because they had the courage or presence of mind to type a period instead of a comma. Are we brave enough to emulate them? In a word: indubitably.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”

Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters, 1657
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, as quoted in Basic Public Speaking by Paul L. Soper, 1963
“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

elementaryMichel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles, 2001
Whether the life is tragic or enlightened, the classic gravestone inscription marking simply the dates of birth and death has, in its brevity, much to recommend it.”

Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, 2005
“Your first parent was a star.”

Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman: An Anthology, 1970
“Not all speed is movement.”

hitchhikerDouglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1978
“Life is wasted on the living.”

Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance, 1893
“A kiss may ruin a human life.”

Shirley Conran, Superwoman, 1975
“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaugherhouse-Five, 1969
“So it goes.”

handmaidsMargaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Henry David Thoreau, Letter to Harrison Blake, 1857
“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932
“All our words from loose using have lost their edge.”