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The Dubious Wisdom of “Smart Brevity”


When Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz founded Axios, in 2017, its animating idea was that powerful people want to know what’s happening, but they don’t want to spend fifteen minutes reading about it. Axios’s e-mail newsletters would be all about bullet points, six-word headlines, and stories that fit on a phone screen. The site went live that January with a Donald Trump interview broken up in multiple posts—“Funny moment,” one of them flatly intoned—and the launch party, attended by the then former Vice-President Joe Biden and the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway alike, featured hologram-esque projections of Allen tending bar. The message? Axios was the wave of the future.

According to VandeHei, Allen, and Schwartz’s new book, “Smart Brevity,” Axios’s innovation was that it just cut to the chase. The site was scoops-driven, and its reporter, Jonathan Swan, was one of the definitive media faces of the Trump era. But Axios’s biggest advantage was that it promised its readers that they wouldn’t have to wade through excess text in order to get to the nuggets of news. It’s a lesson the authors say that they learned while at their previous home, Politico, where barely any of the corporate accounts coughing up a hundred thousand dollars a year for Politico Pro said that they valued the site’s longest stories the most.

“Smart Brevity,” the book, proselytizes a kind of communication that accepts our modern reading habits for what they are, not what they aspire to be: you spend eight hours a day on your phone, clicking from one app to another, not reading full newspaper articles, let alone ten thousand words on the biggest topics of the day. The book is arranged in twenty-four chapters, all brief and with titles such as “Grab me!,” “ONE Big Thing,” and “Be Heard @Work.” I read the book—well, skimmed it, actually, a technique encouraged by the authors—in a little longer than the hundred and six minutes that the cover predicted it would take me to consume all twenty-eight thousand and one words. I kept getting a little bored and putting it down. VandeHei, Allen, and Schwartz spend a lot of column inches telling the reader things like “Brevity is confidence, length is fear”; after a while I got the gist. Stop writing so damn much. The book, the authors say, is meant to help everyone communicate succinctly—students, salespeople, corporate executives, avid tweeters. They explain the origins of the Axios house style (a salty editor deeming a twelve-hundred word story “a pile of shit” before taking the red pen to it), offer data that say readers seldom consume an entire article, and then break down into digestible self-help bites the newsletter style that has defined Axios.

“Smart Brevity” is essentially a book about how to write a good e-mail. (And honestly it probably could have been a long e-mail.) Autumn VandeHei, Jim’s wife, is cited on page 15 as being a “lover of words” and a hater of the book’s concept, along with his kids, who watched him write it on his iPhone. The authors assure us—Autumn, the children, me—that they are not trying to deprive the world of poetry and sparkling prose. However, they would certainly like it to be more concise. Axios-approved writing includes “Jesus wept” (h/t the New Testament) and Abraham Lincoln’s two-hundred-and-seventy-two-word Gettysburg Address.

“Smart Brevity” aims to teach us how to write bluntly, tweet provocatively, and deploy emojis properly. Emojis, in fact, merit an entire chapter. This is not to say that the authors don’t pass along worthy writing tips. They rail against the passive voice, throat-clearing paragraphs, and needlessly wordy sentences. While reading several passages, I could almost feel the presence of my high-school English teacher, a woman disgusted by the very sight of “very.” VandeHei, Allen, and Schwartz want people to read the e-mails you send and digest the information contained therein. They do not particularly care about narrative structure or storytelling as methods of enticement. Fair enough! I, too, would like to avoid reading my H.R. representative’s attempts at folksy humor in corporate-restructuring communiqué.

The book is a useful corporate style guide in that respect. It’s also an advertisement for Axios HQ, a software developed to help companies mimic the Axios newsletter style for their own corporate communications. There’s useful stuff on formatting e-mails with bolded sections and action items, and tips on how to do a good PowerPoint. It’s the sort of book you might give to a recent college graduate headed into corporate America, along with a pair of pearl earrings and a silk hankie for stairwell crying. The authors spend a lot of time suggesting the rephrasing of e-mails sans niceties. Personally, I cannot imagine sending a note with the brusque subject line “our chief of staff quit.” I suspect this is a gender thing: I spent much of my early professional years inserting exclamations into e-mails so as not to sound like a stone-hearted ice witch.

But when it comes to “Smart Brevity,” as applied to the news, there’s something good-naturedly myopic about it. What’s dismissed as “extra words” are, in other outlets, the contextualizing details of complex issues or arguments. Trying to understand the wholesale reshaping of American discourse takes some space to work out. So does prying into the role that political institutions and journalists have played in reshaping it. In 2017, VandeHei and Allen called the media “unambiguously anti-Trump,” a label that seems stuck in a dated paradigm, when journalists didn’t have to call out modern Presidential candidates for bald-faced lies, overtly racist policy proposals and comments, and attacks on the integrity of American democracy. VandeHei told me that information “nirvana” would be that the “Smart Brevity” style allows you to consume “utility news” efficiently and frees you up to read a longer story in a magazine such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Implicit in that, of course, is the idea that longer magazine stories aren’t essential news products. (Let’s just agree to disagree.)

When Axios tells its readers “why it matters,” in any particular story, it’s mapping its own narrative onto it, often with sources that are close to the corridors of power. These are the people who, in Washington or elsewhere, are most intimately involved in the details of a policy or a person of import. They’re important to talk to, but they have their own motivations and blind spots. This method can produce the kind of journalism that, though informative in a ticker-tape sort of way, enables conventional wisdom, which has got a lot of Americans angry at the media in the last few years. Take, for example, a sample story that the authors offer up in the book, which begins, “Joe Biden is running the White House like his nemesis George W. Bush did: a small secretive, like-minded oligarchy.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, the version deemed too boring tells the reader that “Biden is relying on long-time advisors to guide him through tough foreign policy and domestic crises.” Oh, that seems more reasonable. Why did we bring Bush into it? Perhaps it’s because Axios, birthed and reared in the Trump era, seems geared toward a sensationalist sensibility.

It’s not that a lot of Axios journalism isn’t smart—it certainly can be. It’s that it is often restricted by its terse format, which is funny, since both Allen and VandeHei give glimpses into their own contemplative sides. VandeHei writes in the book about his pastor’s advice to “do the next right thing” (VandeHei’s own edit, to make the wisdom pithier), and the Axios newsletter is sometimes about practicing small acts of kindness and “working morally.” VandeHei, who exudes an air of sharp efficiency, told me that the argument that Axios tends to prop up the insider’s world view is “a lazy New York critique.” The site, he said, simply hires people with “authentic expertise in the topics that they cover” and earns reader trust because “one, it isn’t ideological and, two, doesn’t allow its reporters to pop off on Twitter like everybody else.”



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