News & Politics

New Axios Book “Smart Brevity” Sure Is Puzzling

For some reason, we actually read it.

Illustration by Niky Chopra.

Arlington-based media company Axios is known for its chopped-up writing format, which presents news via a salad of bullet points, indentations, and bold text. Now Axios founders Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz have a new book, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More With Less, which is neither brief nor, sadly, very smart. Three reasons to save some time and skip it:

It’s Nothing New

Write with purpose, economy, and vigor—that’s terrific advice that doesn’t require 200-plus pages of “insights” such as “Be honest: You’re a prisoner of words.” Like tech bros high-fiving one another for in­venting something they don’t realize already exists, the Axios dudes trumpet their publication’s unusual style as a fresh, even essential, route to concision. It’s neither.

It Needs an Editor

Anyone who expects a book about writing to be, you know, well written will be flummoxed by the clanking prose in this one. “Think of Smart Brevity as a straitjacket on your worst instincts or habits in communication,” the authors write. “It’s a way to clean up and frame your thinking—then deliver it with a punch.” A straitjacket that helps you deliver a punch?

It Worsens the Problem It Claims to Solve

The authors believe paragraph headers like “Why it matters” and “Zoom in” help readers focus. Unfortunately, these canned phrases are repeated so often that your eye quickly learns to skip over them. That clutter adds useless bulk to already painful sentences like “Never in the history of humanity have we vomited more words in more places with more velocity.”

This article appears in the September 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.