Brevity is the Soul of Wit

I’m a guy who can sit at his keyboard and crank out a column for in about 30 minutes when I’ve got an itch to scratch. Finding enough words to fill a couple of pages isn’t a problem. My technique feels (and maybe reads) like a stream-of-consciousness exercise. I start out with a semi-formed idea of where I’m going, pound out an essay, go over it quickly once, and fire it off before I get cold feet.

Not long ago, after reading Doni’s take on a Doug Mudford-esque “Reflections” column, I decided to give brevity a try, just as an exercise. If you’re a regular you’re familiar with Doug’s style … humorous, weighty observations in about one to three sentences each.

Torture, it turns out. It’s why my Twitter account is nearly devoid of tweets. I stared at my blank screen for a good 15 minutes and couldn’t think of a single pithy observation before throwing in the towel. I confessed my failure in a comment below Doni’s column, and Doni and Doug responded by prodding me to give it another shot.

So here goes …

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•I could tell you, but then I’d have to bore you.

(Nah, I can’t lie. I borrowed that from my memory banks just to get started—a line I’d read somewhere long ago, maybe on a T-shirt. I warned you—I’m bad at this.)

•If you want to feel the love, a bad dog is better than a good cat.

(I think that’s more or less original, but I rank it as one of the tritest of trite observations I’ve ever shared. If it’s original, it’s still hugely unoriginal. How does Doug do this?)

•By almost every objective measure, humanity has never had it so good. That’s especially true if you happen to be American Scandinavian. Why all the hand-wringing and heartburn?

•Everyone should have a go-to insult. Here’s mine: “That dude is such a penis with limbs.” Yours?

•To the million or so federal employees who voted for L’Orange Führer whose annual raises were just canceled by L’Orange to help pay for the tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the über-wealthy (like L’Orange himself), I offer these heartfelt words of condolence: Sorry, chumps.

•If you connected the dots between the previous three observations, pat yourself on the back.

•Fried chicken. A favorite food of my childhood that I rarely eat these days, even though I still love it. That’s not mere nostalgia—whenever I do get my mitts on good fried chicken, I still love it.

•Also regarding childhood food: Mom, I grew up and got a Ph.D. in biology. The liver is the body’s toxic waste transfer station, and it’s got too much retinol. One serving of fried beef liver ain’t gonna kill me, but I’m not eating that blood-tasting garbage-can organ tissue ever again. Liverwurst can take a hike, too.

•Norman Maclean (“A River Runs Through It”) described in one of his memoirs a Forest Service colleague who wrote him one-line letters, which Maclean greatly admired for their brevity and precise wholeness. The one that I best recall: I slept with a woman who weighed 600 pounds.

•Speaking of sex, from The Times of London: People who own TV sets are 6 percent less likely in a given week to “sweep the special chimney.” If I were to say to my spouse, “My dearest, let us sweep the special chimney,” that would likely be the last chapter in the book of my marriage. Brits are weird.

•Tim Conway is probably the first person who made me laugh until it hurt. Dentist sketch.

•Dementia, you’re a bitch on wheels.

•Birds are extant dinosaurs of the suborder Theropoda. Wrap your head around it, because it’s true. I’m a cladist, so by the same taxonomic logic—common descent and relatedness are what matter—humans are the third member of the chimpanzee clade…and more than 99% of us live up to that billing.

•No, I’m not including myself in the remaining fraction of 1%. Nor anyone likely to be reading this. Galileo Galilei. Rene Descartes. Siddhartha Gautama. Leonardo Da Vinci. Charles Darwin. Hedy Lamarr.

•It’s not that I’m averse to eating organ tissue. Sweetbreads (usually pancreas and thymus) are rarely seen on restaurant menus, and never in supermarkets, because the gods keep most of it for themselves. But seriously, beef liver: You suck out loud.

•I’m visiting two of my grandkids in Sacramento the other day. My daughter cues up their regular FaceTime conversation with their other grandpa, Tom. Tom is wearing an alt-Forest Service T-shirt depicting Smokey Bear that says, “Resist.” I’m wearing my Drive-By Trucker’s T-shirt that says, “Resist.” I’m just gonna stake the claim, grandkids: Your grandparents are hipper than your parents.

•Polonius (from “Hamlet”): “Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.”

•My bastardized version: “Since brevity is a load of $#!+, and taxing the trimming of lines and outward flourishes, henceforward I will be wordy. U mad, bro?”


Steve Towers
Steve Towers is co-owner of a local environmental consultancy. After obtaining his Ph.D. from UC Davis and dabbling as a UCD lecturer, he took a salary job with a Sacramento environmental firm. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Highway 50 one afternoon, he reckoned that he was receiving 80 hours of paid vacation per year and spending 520 hours per year commuting to and from work. He and his wife Elise sold their house and moved to Redding three months later, and have been here for more than 20 years. His hobbies include travel, racquet sports, taking the dogs on hikes, and stirring pots. He can be reached at
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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    My favorite saying is by Mike Ditka. “You never truly fail until you quit trying”.
    And I have drawers full of literary rejection slips that greatly outnumber my printed literary achievements for proof.
    And, yes, I hate liver too.

  2. Avatar Robert Wallenberg says:

    “I would rather be rich & healthy than poor & sick”.

  3. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Guilianai’s “Truth isn’t Truth” is an eye opener. I once saw a slogan framed on a wall, “Brevity is the sole of wit.” I’m still trying to figure if it had some deep meaning or if the author just couldn’t spell.

  4. Avatar Doug Mudford says:

    John Huston…I think

    “The most a man can hope for is to live and die beyond his means”

    there’s nothing wrong with writing essays when you have something to say…you do.

    I like liver and onions and sausage…I don’t want to know the origin or purpose of either.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Never had it with sausage, but I, too, like liver and onions. There was a meat market in Anchorage that sold liver in about 5″ rectangles about 1″ square. We barbequed it, and it was great.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Speaking of purposes, I’m pretty sure the onions and sausage are there to disguise the taste of the liver. When I was a lad, my solution to liver was liberal use of Heinz Tomato Ketchup.

  5. Avatar Robert Wallenberg says:

    “Don‘t spend a lot of time doping out why a black hen lays a white egg – get the egg!

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      A real favorite: People who wonder if the glass is half empty or half full, miss the point. The glass is refillable.

  6. You did it, Steve! I love this! Well done.

    I don’t have any great put-downs, but here are a couple of my favorite examples of brilliant brevity:

    “Two bald men fighting over a comb.” Oct 28, 1998 – Argentinian writer Jose Luis Borges describing the Falklands War.

    “Looks like two pigs fighting under a blanket.” Steel Magnolias … Dolly Parton’s character’s assessment of a woman dancing, sans girdle.

    (Thank you, Doug Mudford, for the inspiration.)

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      My next-door neighbor in Davis was in Argentina during the Falklands War, doing some consulting work (his specialty was post-harvest fruit production). Shortly after the invasion, Argentinians were ecstatic about getting their islands back. The neighbor was attending a small get-together with acquaintances (as the British Navy steamed toward the Falklands), and he suggested that his hosts might be celebrating prematurely. Argentina had a history of one simmering conflict—with Chile—and it hadn’t gone particularly well for the Argentinians, he said. The British, on the other hand, had fought scores of nasty wars, and very rarely lose—the British are pretty good at war, he said. A week later, his work visa was revoked and he was asked to leave the country.

  7. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Good one, Steve. Actually, good eighteen, Steve.

  8. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Great article Steven. The best insult I’ve heard was the one Dwayne Hampton gave a friend after that friend critiqued the music selections played by Dwayne’s piano students at a recital. Dwayne looked at my friend and said gravely “Coming from you sir; that means nothing at all.”

  9. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    “If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” — Lady Nancy Astor

    “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” — Sir Winston Churchill

  10. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Brevity is certainly NOT one of my strengths . . . I tend to be a stream of consciousness writer also . . . . which is why I could never make it as a writer!! My stream consciousness is frequently experiencing a draught.

    Nice try though, Steve!!

  11. Avatar Candace C says:

    “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

    Dorothy Parker

  12. Avatar Ned Estill says:

    “Frank, you’re the ten dullest people I know.” -Capt. B.F. “Hawkeye” Pierce, M.D.