Brevity = Wit

The first time I met Mr. Fear, I hated him.

This is not a hackneyed metaphor, nor is it a Hiro Protagonist kind of situation. Mr. Fear was a real high school English teacher, and that was his real name. We also had a Mr. Read and a Mr. Kuhl (pronounced “cool”) at the same school, and for a brief time a student teacher from the university whose name was also Fiehr, pronounced in the way you would expect given that I’m bringing it up here. We were practically a Louis Sachar book.

Mr. Fear was painfully awkward, and had absolutely no control over our freshman class despite a decade of teaching experience. He crushed his authoritative standing even further by routinely sharing overly-personal anecdotes, such as the fact that he’d been stood up at the altar twice, and had made multiple overnight recordings of himself snoring. At one point he gave out his home phone number to the class, apparently unable to foresee the prank calls that would ensue—then angrily complained about them, thus guaranteeing that the harassment would continue for weeks on end. Of course I never took part in it myself, but I also had no pity for him. As far as I was concerned, the situation was entirely his own fault.

My junior year, I ended up with Mr. Fear on my schedule again, but my dread turned out to be unfounded. Perhaps it was because we were older, or just a better assortment of human beings overall, but for whatever reason the demeanor of the room jumped instantly from middle school to college. Without the behavior problems to distract him, I was finally able to get a sense of how smart (if still incredibly foolish in some arenas) Mr. Fear really was.

He knew all of Shakespeare by heart. All of it. If we were good and had a few minutes left at the end of class, he would let us play a game where we opened to any page in his Complete Works of Shakespeare, and read out one line. Not a line in the theatrical sense, but one visual line of text, usually about ten words. He would tell us the character, play, act, and scene; then sometimes recite the section surrounding it for good measure. I never once saw him get it wrong.

But the point at which he really started to grow on me was when he declared that we weren’t going to read The Great Gatsby like all the other junior English classes. He had great appreciation for other classics like Lord of the Flies and The Scarlet Letter, but thought Gatsby was utter crap, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Instead, he said, we were going to learn how to write. Someone moaned about how we already knew the standard “In this essay I will show A, B, and C” regurgitations, and he nearly had an apoplectic fit.

After a few deep breaths, he picked up his chalk and wrote on the board, “Brevity = Wit.” Some of us got the joke, and for the rest he explained that it meant everything was better shorter. Everything, always. The only trick, he said, was not to lose any meaning when you shortened your sentence.

Then he started pulling examples from what I assumed were random academic papers, but I now think might have been written by former college professors he still held grudges against. (This was another personal tale of woe he had shared with us: how he had achieved all-but-dissertation status on his doctorate, but the politics of academia had conspired to keep him from finishing it.) They all went something like this sentence that I ganked from PubMed for illustrative purposes:

“Recent advances, for example, in the discovery of the genomic landscape of the disease, in the development of assays for genetic testing and for detecting minimal residual disease, as well as in the development of novel anti-leukemic agents, prompted an international panel to provide updated evidence- and expert opinion-based recommendations.”

50 words, and an eyesore. Then Mr. Fear would start pointing out redundancies: you can’t “make an advance in” a discovery or development; the discovery/development is the advancement. Minimal and residual in this case are synonyms. A development is inherently novel. In the case of a medical panel, the recommendations are assumed to be based on evidence and expert opinions. Genetic tests already prove the existence of genomic knowledge. “X prompted Y to provide” is longer than “Y provided after X”. Bit by bit, the sentence would shrink.

“An international panel of leukemia experts updated their recommendations for diagnosis and treatment in the wake of successful genomic mapping, assays to detect residual disease, and new anti-leukemic agents.”

29 words, and clarity.

While the other teachers lectured on the symbolism of green lights, Mr. Fear spent six weeks straight on “densifying” sentences, and by the end I’d learned more about writing than all the rest of my English education combined. I don’t know for sure, because I never did read it, but in retrospect I think he probably slipped in more than one sentence from The Great Gatsby for us to improve. My God, did he hate that book.

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