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Hema Karunakaram: The art of concise articulation

By Hema Karunakaram, Columnist
Published January 27, 2013

“Describe yourself in three sentences that are no more than eight words each.”

Excuse me, internship application: Did you just give me all of 24 words to paint a picture of the awesomeness that is me? A personal statement is one thing, but being forced to cut down so much into so little is obnoxious. How do I pick just the right words to use? I could just list 24 adjectives about myself — but that’s too boring. I could twist the rules of grammar and write three sentences that are not really sentences — but I don’t think I should be experimenting too much on an application like this. So, where do I draw the line?

Dilemmas like mine aren’t isolated. It seems that the desire for brevity as a way to measure thinking abilities is becoming more widespread. And why not accomplish two things at once by asking for a sort of personal statement? A friend recently shared a question from a leading company that asked the applicant to describe, in 100 words or fewer, why he or she wanted to work there. While the company gets the desired information about the applicant’s interest from this, it's also able to see how creative the applicant can be in such space limits.

But this forced conciseness seems a bit counterintuitive to our educational methods. So much of our time in school is spent describing, expanding and developing ideas in order to meet word or page requirements. We’ll flip between online thesauruses trying to find the longest word that means what we intend and add all kinds of “fluff” to take up space. Even as I type this column, my eyes are glancing down to the word count every few minutes. While we’ve been taught not to ramble and to stick to the point, we're still encouraged to explain our ideas as much as possible. And now, suddenly, it seems that whatever we learned from our 25-page final reports and 5,000-word literary analyses has gone to waste.

Perhaps this argument that less is more is about more than just measuring our creative ability. In our fast-paced world, people don’t have time to read through anything longer than a few sentences at a time. Take the Twitter culture, for example. With over 200-million monthly active users, the San Francisco-based company is one of the largest online forums — despite the fact that its users are only allowed to post 140 characters at a time.

Personally, I feel stifled every time I’m tweeting and see that little red counter closing in toward zero. I’m that person struggling to eliminate characters until I can make it down to exactly 140; sometimes, I’m forced to spread my ideas across multiple tweets at once. On principle I refuse to abbreviate “you” to “u” and “before” to “b4” — I won’t budge when it comes to good English. But being the word nerd that I am, it’s suffocating to have to replace a longer, more apt word with one that is shorter and more succinct. (And can we take a moment to acknowledge that “succinct,” at eight letters, is hardly a succinct word?)

Giving in to the demands of modern culture shouldn’t have to mean compromising vocabulary. But maybe, even from a language-oriented point of view, being short on space means finding innovative uses for punctuation or communicating multiple entendres where appropriate. It’s an exercise not just in creativity, but, perhaps, also in mastery of language.

Maybe you’ve yet to face a task that requires you to drastically cut down on words. But if and when you do come across such a situation, embrace it as a challenge. Finding the right words to describe who we are or what we feel is never easy, but when we have to do so in such a small space it turns into an opportunity to truly find the root of what we’re trying to say. For all the Twitter fiends out there, think about what’s really important in every tweet you compose. When we’re cramped for space, every letter means so much more.

As for me, I’ve tried to turn what was initially an annoyance into an exercise in figuring out what I’m really about. There’s something almost poetic about trying to describe ourselves with just the bare minimum. So, here I am, stripped down to the root.

Quick-witted, sharp, passionate: just “no” isn’t an answer. From benzene to Bharatanatyam, my bases are covered. My words may be small — my dreams aren’t.

Hema Karunakaram can be reached at khema@umich.edu.