How to Economize Time in Reading and Writing


THERE is a commendable attention paid, of late, to the ways and means of lengthening human life. Germs and microbes have been added to the known and influential population of the globe. The newspapers preach hygienic laws. All of us (except, of course, the average physician, who is interested in every aspect of disease but its prevention) are keen for athletics and other prophylactics. So that in fact we do seem to have succeeded in somewhat extending the term of available life-force. But there is a close limit to possibilities in this direction. The best hope, after all, of practically lengthening human life is in the way of devices for economizing the limited time we have. “ You have all the time there is,” was a witty saying of the red man, but not a strictly correct one. The truth is, we do not have anything like all the time there is. If, out of our twelve available hours, we waste a half or more by doing things the long way instead of the short way — Since we cannot greatly increase the numerator, our allotted time, we must see what can be done to decrease the denominator, our fashion of its expenditure.

I have been thinking of it especially with reference to readers and writers. It is plain that the knack of reading very fast ought to be more cultivated. It should be encouraged in schools. Aloud, for the benefit of others, the child should be taught to read as slowly as the intelligence of the particular audience in view may seem to require ; but silently, and for his own benefit, he should learn to read like lightning. I would set a class to read a page or a passage “ to themselves,” and whoever could prove, by giving an accurate account of the matter some time afterward, that he had read thoroughly, and still had come out ahead, should be (as the boys say) “the best fellow.” Again, I notice that some people have to read any item or article in a paper “ clear through,” to see whether it is anything they want to read; and only to find, generally, that it is n’t. One should learn to find out by the earmarks, in the twinkling of an eye. In doubtful cases this can commonly be tested by the end better than by the beginning. Of course there are many cases not in the least doubtful, where the heading, or the first sentence, assures you that this is one of those things that seem intensely interesting to newspaper writers, but are of no earthly interest to any other human intelligence. Paragraphs or long platitudinous articles concerning the office-yearner of the hour, or other temporary celebrities, — how easy to avoid them by means of that truly providential circumstance that proper names begin with capital letters, and readily catch the eye ! These large letters of the personal item are a kind of merciful guide-board : “ This is not the road to anything interesting or useful.”

As to time-saving expedients for the writer, I will not wickedly mention the one that has oftenest occurred to my own mind, — the expedient, namely, of not writing at all. This would, no doubt, be an enormous saving of valuable time to some of us; but far be it from me to offer the suggestion to any of those simple-hearted persons seeking “ candid literary advice.” Short of that, there are practicable knacks. For instance, why should any one write a script that is four or five times as big as need be ? If it were for a street sign, now, or a notice of sheriff’s sale, — but for a manuscript to be read at easy distances, why go through with the purely gratuitous muscular exertion and time-expenditure of making colossal letters ? As to the superfluity of graceful quirls and flourishes, I need not say anything to literary persons ; these are well known to be the peculiar property of commercial writers, who are paid by the day, and not, like literary laborers, by the job.

There is one time-saver that I hesitate to speak of without an opportunity of consulting the editor, the proof-reader, and the printer. Would it or would it not be safe to recommend to writers in general to employ certain short ways of writing familiar and constantly recurring words and syllables ? Probably all literary workers do, sooner or later, adopt some such, at least in manuscript to be read only by themselves. But for the printer, also, are not wd and cd and shd as good as the full forms ? Is not & as plain as full and ? May we not safely shorten ing to g, as in comg, thinkg, walkg, etc. ? Nor need this g be written in full form, either, but merely by bringing the pen round with a quick upward loop and down stroke, making a graceful little tadpole of a letter. In like manner, the continually recurring ed of participles may be shortened into a Greek δ lightly flirted upward, as in lovd, feard, awaitd, etc. An i, also, may occasionally be dropped out, as in oblgd, satisfd, etc. These are not tricks, however, for rash experiment. If a writer were to overdo this sort of abbreviation, and I were a printer, I should be tempted to retaliate, as one of that craft did for me once on a time in boyhood, when I sent in a scrabbled manuscript. I had written about “ Peace with her baby smile,” in my feeble verses, and he printed it “ baggy smile.”

But I have left my most important suggestion for the last; for I wish to escape at the end of it, stepping out quietly as the next contributor enters, so as not to confront the “ pooh-poohs ” and “ fiddlesticks ” of the audience. The suggestion is this : Why not shorten up our whole system of printing English by leaving out the unnecessary words ? If any one will take the trouble to glance over a page of any book in our language, he will find that just about half the words might have been omitted without injury to the sense. The Latin tongue is admirable in this respect. Librum legit: “ He has read the book.” We have to use four words to the Latin’s two. Libri finem scripsit: “He has written the end of the book.” Here are eight words to the Latin’s three.

I do not mean to say that these extra English words are of no use. It is possible, even, that our language might be made still more subtly analytical than it now is, so that every shade of thoughtrelation would have its audible and visible symbol. But the question is, How much have we time for ? Considering the enormous disproportion between the things to be done and the time in which to do them, might we not gain something by leaving out the easily supplied subtleties of relation, thus giving the overworked eye and brain only the amount of labor which is necessary ? Would it not even (but this is a nut for the psychological expert alone to crack) bring the visible language more nearly to the shape of the ideas as actually succeeding each other in the mind ? “ Oh, John ” (for example), “ go thou and catch for me the horse of the grandmother of the baker in a hurry.” In case of the actual occurrence, would the mind consciously grip more than “ — John — catch — horse — grandmother — baker — hurry ” ? If so, why not print it thus abbreviated, when we come to reduce it to book-speech ? Suppose we try the experiment on a passage chosen (pretty much at random) from the twenty-eighth chapter of David Copperfield. I put a dash wherever one or more words are omitted: —

“ — between ten — eleven — Mrs. Micawber rose — replace — cap — whity-brown — parcel, and — put on — — bonnet.” (Of course, it would not be “ ten ” and “ eleven ” of anything but the clock ; and naturally Mrs. M. would not be putting away anybody else’s cap than her own, or in any whitybrown parcel except a paper one ; nor would she, when once you know that only Mr. M., David, and Traddles are present, be supposed to have put on the bonnet of either of these gentlemen. Why, then, insert the superfluous words ?) “ Mr. M. took — opportunity — Traddles putting on — great-coat — slip — letter — my hand — whispered request — read it — my leisure. I also took — opportunity — holding — candle over — banisters — light them down — detain Traddles — moment — top — stairs.

“ ‘ Traddles ’ — I, ‘ Mr. M. don’t mean — harm, poor fellow, but—I — you — would n’t lend — anything.’

“ ‘ — dear C.’ — Traddles, smiling, 1 — have n’t — anything — lend ! ’

“ ‘ — have — name, you know,’ — I.

“ ‘ Oh! ’ — Traddles, ‘ — call that something — lend ? ’ — Traddles — thoughtful look.”

Or suppose it be a case of simple narrative : —

“ — evening — moon — just rising — dark — frowning walls — castle — hark! — charger’s iron - shod — heard as — clatter — drawbridge. Suddenly — through — opening — forest - black knight — seen. As — flashed by — looked back — waved — sword — shouted — all — leonine ferocity — voice, 4 Ah, ha ! — villain — foiled again! 5 ”

In the former passage we thus save about two third’s of the words ; in the latter about half. Each of these omitted words would have taxed the eye and the brain for a definite and considerable amount of effort. It may be, however, that very rapid readers, like Macaulay “ tearing out the heart of a book ” at a book-stall, contrive to make some such abbreviation for themselves, snatching at the important Words alone.

Of course the dashes give a rather breathless and jerky effect, at first, but we should soon get used to them. Or the printer might devise some neater way of indicating the gaps ; perhaps by a period placed just above the line instead of on it, or by mere spacing.

The fact that we can get along with hearing only the important words is shown by the facility of partially deaf persons in divining our meaning from only the emphasized tones. It is shown also by the perfect ease with which two, three, or even four vivacious young ladies will understand each other when they are all talking at once. Moreover, the eye is well known to be far quicker of apprehension than the ear.

It might at least prove to be a valuable exercise for any of us to practice in this way the elimination of all but the important words from our little writings. Fewer and fewer words would gradually come to seem indispensably necessary to be said, until at last (but here I verge again on the truculent suggestion which I said should not be made) the body of our works might disappear entirely; leaving only such a final and perfected state of “ brevity ” as would be the “ soul of wit ” indeed.