How many words are too many?


What I learnt at SPRU last week

Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


While attending a conference last week it struck me that many of the presentations could effectively be summarised into a few words. Sheila Jasanoff’s one hour talk, for instance, could simply have been ‘the history of words matter’. Givanni Dosi’s presentation could have been, ‘I have nothing new to add since the last time I talked to you’.


Many fundamental things require even fewer words, sometimes heading towards zero. You can express disgust with ‘ugh’, frustration with ‘aargh’. You can look some people in the eye, and they will know what you want to say.


Now although I claim to be a man of few words, I realise that this is a personal myth. I wax lyrical and verbose when I start talking, although there are days – for I live alone – where I say nothing.  But when there is something or someone I feel passionate about, my cup runneth over.


In my case, it is an outward expression of my inner voice. I have - as you know - a mind that wanders through and away, tangentially, not always usefully. Thus my need to write, to talk, to let the dialogue of my inner demons loose, to wrestle them down into submission. Thus the essays, the poems, even my academic papers, for putting them out in public allows me to free myself of fallacious and ridiculous directions of thought, and the satisfaction (occasionally) of finding a gem amongst the rubble in my head. But this is a selfish exercise at worst, and of interest to one or a few people who enjoy the dialogue, or read my academic work, at best. I admit it. Passion acts on us differently. When I am in anguish, because (for instance) a thought does not resolve itself, I cannot stop expressing myself. Others respond to this pain by monk-like silence.


But it seems that the basic issue in everything, once you cut out the bullshit, the explanations, the justifications, doesn’t require many words. You can say ‘I love you’ or ‘I am hungry’ or ‘I have warts’ or ‘institutions are important’ in three. All the rest of it, before and after, simply justifies these words, situating them into context, so that their meaning does not get misplaced. This may involve deciding where I’d like to eat, and where, or what it is I love, and why, or which institutions are important.


If one uses too many words, people stop listening. Fidel Castro is famous for 7 hour speeches which no one remembers.  When my essays get too long, fewer people read them, no matter how well I may have expressed myself.  If one uses too few, the context will be lost, and the meaning that you wish to convey is open to misinterpretation. I believe this is a challenge faced not just in academia, but in advertising, propaganda, and even interpersonal relations. How many misunderstandings exist out amongst people, either because of the lack of communication, or the excess of it? 


So the question that has been bothering me since that conference is this: What is the optimal number of words required to justify any basic message, so that the essential core does not drown in a sea of excess words, nor marooned because of a shortage to support its essence?