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Fractions and brevity: the unwitting soul of it all

"I don't get it, can you help me Dad?," my daughter said. How humbling is it to be stumped by fourth-grade math homework? Reduce fractions to the lowest-common denominator.

Recollections of mom's protests against my being left back due to this very fourth-grade deficiency freight-trained into my mind's eye as I surveyed the assignment. I don't know if my little girl saw beads of sweat forming in the underbrush of my mustache, but I felt it.

While editing copy the next day, part of me was still swaying aboard the remembrance express: reduce till it can't be reduced any further. Why didn't I ever learn that? Actually, I did. Because, as with fractions, so it is with good copy: Reduce to short sentences. Reduce to simple verbs. Direct action, direct result.

Just like this:

Here's the fraction-reducing rule for crisp copy: say something well. Say nothing else. Say it plainly, then shut up. After all, Gilding the lily betrays a lack of confidence in your message.

The reason, I never learned how to reduce fractions, by the way, is because the teacher never convinced me why I needed to know; 40 years later my Stella did.


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