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How to Write Short
Word Craft for Fast Times
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In How to Write Short, Roy Peter Clark turns his attention to the art of painting a thousand pictures with just a few words. Short forms of writing have always existed-from ship logs and telegrams to prayers and haikus. But in this ever-changing Internet age, short-form writing has become an essential skill.
Clark covers how to write effective and powerful titles, headlines, essays, sales pitches, Tweets, letters, and even self-descriptions for online dating services. With examples from the long tradition of short-form writing in Western culture, How to Write Short guides writers to crafting brilliant prose, even in 140 characters.
Table of Contents
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When Words Are Worth a Thousand Pictures
At this moment, the right pocket in my jeans contains more computing power than the space vessel that carried the first astronauts to the moon. My Apple iPhone 4S stores all of Shakespeare's plays, a searchable source I can use for quick reference. More often, I use my mobile phone for access to what are no longer being called "new" forms of information delivery: blog posts, e-mails, text messages, YouTube videos, 140-character tweets, and Facebook updates, not to mention games, weather reports, Google Maps, coupons, the White House, Al Jazeera, NPR, dozens of newspapers, music sites, an electronic drum set, an app that imitates the sounds of Star Wars lightsabers, one that turns your photo into an image of a zombie, and yet another invaluable resource titled Atomic Fart, which turns your mobile device into an electronic whoopee cushion.
Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we're soaring high above Oz, looking down like a Google Earth search. We're high on technology, but adrift in a jet stream of information. All the more reason to write short—and well.
I've written How to Write Short because I could not find another book quite like it and because in the digital age, short writing is king. We need more good short writing—the kind that makes us stop, read, and think—in an accelerating world. A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct. Such is our appetite for short writing that not only do our long stories seem too long, but our short stories feel too long as well.
The most important messages are short, after all: "Amen, brother." "Will you marry me?" "I do." "Not guilty." "The Giants win the pennant!" (That message was so exciting in 1951 that the radio announcer Russ Hodges repeated it five times.) "Score!" "You're fired." "I love you."
In his book Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, Christopher Johnson writes, "Messages of just a word, a phrase, or a short sentence or two—micromessages—lean heavily on every word and live or die by the tiniest stylistic choices. Micromessages depend not on the elements of style but on the atoms of style." To which I would add, "Not just the atoms of style but the quirks and quarks of style as well."
The New York Times reported the death of Osama Bin Laden with a two-tier headline of fifteen words. On the other hand, the St. Petersburg Times chose a single word for its headline—DEAD—but printed it in letters that were five inches high.
More than four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare built his fame on the construction of thirty-seven plays, more or less, at least half of them masterpieces. But he also penned 154 love poems called sonnets, each exactly fourteen lines in length. The Bard demonstrated how long and short writing can coexist. For the first fourteen lines of Romeo and Juliet, he composed a sonnet that summarizes the key plot elements, including (spoiler alert!) the news that "a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life."
To cut down the number of words we moderns use, we could revert to Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets or Egyptian hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls. They say, after all, that a picture is worth a thousand words. I have seen some pictures that were worth a thousand words, but being a man of the word, I remain open to the idea that some words may be worth a thousand pictures. Consider these historical and cultural documents:
The Hippocratic oath
The Twenty-Third Psalm
The Lord's Prayer
Shakespeare's Sonnet 18
The Preamble to the Constitution
The Gettysburg Address
The last paragraph of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech
I once exchanged messages with NPR's Scott Simon, who shared this important idea, which he learned from his stepfather: If you add up the words in these documents, the sum will be fewer than a thousand, 996 by my count. Show me any number of pictures as powerful as those seven documents.
Now meet Joanna Smith, a young reporter for the Toronto Star. Picture her, early in 2010, hitting the ground in Haiti, a country rocked by earthquake. She will file dispatches by the minute using Twitter. Smith posts dozens of short reports in the form of tweets, each limited to 140 characters: "Fugitive from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage." One by one, each post is a vivid snapshot of natural and human disaster. Together they constitute something akin to a serial narrative with short chapters, or a "live blog."
Writers who complain about a 140-character limit are, shall we say, shortsighted. But consider this array of sentences, expressed easily within the tight boundaries of a tweet:
- "These are the times that try men's souls."
- "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
- "Take my wife, please."
- "Where's the beef?"
- "I like Ike."
That list includes a famous line from a political pamphlet by Thomas Paine, a telegram from Mark Twain, a joke by Henny Youngman, an advertising campaign for Wendy's, and a presidential political slogan. When I add them up, I get 138 characters. One tweet.
So the culture turns: short, shorter, even shorter, abbreviation, acronym, emoticon. Maybe explorers from a future generation will discover that our discourse devolved to the point that combinations of smiley and frowny faces could be used as the binary elements to express everything from love poems to eulogies to State of the Union addresses.
Now for the good news: writing in short forms does not require the sacrifice of literary values. The poet Peter Meinke talks about the power that comes from focus, wit, and polish. Focus is the unifying theme. Wit is the governing intelligence. Polish creates the sparkle that comes from careful word choice and revision.
The demand for good short writing is not an innovation. That need can be traced, through countless examples, back to the origins of writing itself. Here, for example, is a list, not exhaustive, of forms of short writing that users of the Internet have inherited in one way or another: prayers, epigrams, wisdom literature, epitaphs, short poetic forms (such as haiku, sonnet, couplet), language on monuments, letters, rules of thumb, labels (as on poison bottles), lyrics, ship logs, diaries, journal entries, bumper stickers, graffiti, advertisements, news dispatches, pieces of dialogue or conversation, wedding and other announcements, headlines, captions, summaries, telegrams, notes, microfiction, insults—and the list goes on.
From the analysis of these traditional short forms, writers and readers can learn the essential elements of good short writing, everything from word order, ellipses, and slang to levels of formality and informality, details, and parallel structures. These same strategies and more can be used to great effect in the new forms that have emerged with the development of digital technology: e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, blog posts, hyperlinks, website writing and navigation, commentary, feedback loops, updates, headlines, summaries, search engine optimization (phrases that will get you high up on Google searches), Q & A's, slide shows.
My study of short writing over the centuries reveals that while technologies, genres, and platforms evolve, the purposes of short writing remain intact:
- To enshrine: gravestones, monuments, tattoos
- To amuse: jokes, insults, one-liners, snarky comments
- To explain: museum texts, recipes, instructions
- To narrate: microfiction, live blogs, diaries
- To alert and inform: text messages, tweets, telegrams, status updates, news bulletins, signage
- To remember: notes, summaries, lists, ceremonial texts (such as wedding vows)
- To inspire: proverbs, quotations, prayers, aphorisms
- To sell: graffiti, adverts, résumés, bumper stickers, T-shirts, dating sites
- To converse: Q & A, social networks, feedback loops, blogs, speech balloons
You can detect from these partial lists that the craft of short writing applies to all forms of expression, not just the techie ones. Most writers will be as concerned with practical, job-related forms of short writing—from letters of recommendation and complaint to job postings, pitch notes, product descriptions, and classified ads—as they are with postings on social networks.
How short is short? Common sense dictates that length is relative. I am about five feet eleven inches tall, a little above average for American men. That means that I am too large to ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby and too small to play defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A short story can be more than three thousand words long, which might be the length of a substantial essay or the longest story in Sunday's New York Times. A three-hundred-word piece of writing is short by most standards, but not if you are writing a tweet. Still, for the purposes of this book, three hundred words seems a reasonable boundary for learning how to read, write, and talk about short writing.
I've divided this book into two sections, the how and the why of the short writing craft. The how comprises the rhetorical strategies that make a short text tick. The why reveals the practical uses of short writing over centuries, the ways in which writers use short forms to fulfill their aspirations, from the quotidian to the eternal.
This introduction turns out to be about sixteen hundred words, twice the length needed to print the Ten Commandments, the Hail Mary, the first stanza of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Emma Lazarus poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the lyrics to "Over the Rainbow," and the words recited by Neil Armstrong when he stepped onto the surface of the moon. I guess I've got a little more work to do to master the exquisite craft of how to write short—especially in these fast times.
How to Write Short
The problem of writing short is exemplified by this anecdote, published in the New York Times, about the famed novelist E. L. Doctorow:
One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E. L. Doctorow's daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, "My daughter, Caroline.…" He stopped. "Of course she's my daughter," he said to himself. "Who else would be writing a note for her?" He began again. "Please excuse Caroline Doctorow.…" He stopped again. "Why do I have to beg and plead for her?" he said. "She had a virus. She didn't commit a crime!" On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, "I can't take this anymore," penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: "Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form."
When it comes to the how of short writing, you will find three paths: learning short writing through reading; practicing the best short writing moves; and cutting longer texts down to size. If you want to write short, you must read short, and you must do it without bias. Yes, your reading will include classic poems and other gems of human culture, but the clever writer can never discriminate against the funkier or more utilitarian examples of the craft. The baseball card, the limerick, the lyric, the ransom note, the fortune in the fortune cookie—each stands as a work with a sharp rhetorical purpose and a clearly imagined audience.
Close reading of short forms reveals the most strategic moves practiced by the best writers. To grow in the craft, we study those moves, name them, imitate them, and adapt them till they conform to our own sense of mission and begin to sound like us.
A hard part of the writing process is cutting, and yes, Mr. Doctorow, the pain is magnified when the writing is short. Comparing it to surgery on the human body, cutting our prose moves us from excess fat to basic fat to muscle to bone to marrow and even deeper. During revision, I realize that 90 percent of my cuts are helpful. I want to keep cutting the clutter, but I reach a point where it's hard to know what to cut and what to keep. The final cuts are hardest because they can identify nuances of meaning (think of the sculptor's final touches) or they can threaten something essential to the reader's understanding. An editor or test reader can come to the writer's rescue. It is often those final cuts—the finishing touches—that create the most dazzling facets of the diamond, a jewel of short writing, ready to be polished. How and when do we make those crucial cuts?
When we have worked our way through the how of short writing, we will be ready to tackle the why.
Collect short writing.
Remember the movie kid who said, "I see dead people"?
I see short writing.
I collect it all in my daybook: haikus and sonnets, aphorisms and parables, prayers and insults, bumper sticker slogans and T-shirt rhymes, blurbs, titles, ads, street signs, marginalia, bulleted lists, song lyrics, announcements, propaganda, and names, names, and more names. I can also go new-school: tweets, blog posts, updates on social networks, e-mails, text messages, and more.
I'm in an airport motel in Providence, Rhode Island, toweling off after a shower, when my eye catches a green tag hooked onto the towel rack.
"Reuse or replace?" it reads.
And then: "To reuse: hang towels up; to replace: place towels on floor."
Then at the bottom: "Take care. We owe it to one another."
The style is spare. Absent are words such as environment, sustainability, or climate change. The messenger counts on my knowing the backstory: that needless laundering of towels helps no one. The slight message does heavy work. It offers readers a choice, then a course of action and, as in a parable, a moral as a reward.
I prowl the stacks at a bookstore near Brown University called Books on the Square. A volume called The Notebook catches my eye. The author is José Saramago of Portugal, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In short daily passages from September 2008 to November 2009 the author chronicles the final year of his life, offering sharp opinions on politics, literature, and culture. Some entries measure five hundred words or more, but the average length is shorter. Before it became a book, the entries ran as blog posts.
It fills me with joy that an eighty-seven-year-old author would keep a blog. He stands with the octogenarian golf writer Dan Jenkins, who still reports on tournaments live via Twitter. A third musketeer could be Herman Wouk, who is publishing—at the age of ninety-seven—an epistolary novel narrated through not just letters but e-mails, text messages, and tweets.
Saramago blogs on November 25, 2008, after a press conference in São Paulo, Brazil:
I was surprised that several journalists wanted to ask me about my role as a blogger… my decision to write on the "infinite page of the Internet." Could it be, to put it more clearly, that it's here that we all most closely resemble one another? Is this the closest thing we have to citizen power? Are we more companionable when we write on the Internet? I have no answers; I'm merely stating the questions. And I enjoy writing here now. I don't know whether it is more democratic, I only know that I feel just the same as the young man with the wild hair and the round-rimmed glasses, in his early twenties, who was asking me… questions. For a blog, no doubt.
This passage ends with a delightful jolt, a standard move in clever short writing. That intentional sentence fragment stops the paragraph short, a passage that rolls downhill from a first-person statement to a meditation on writing, technology, and democracy to a vivid physical description of a young blogger—all hitting a full stop with the starkest language, five one-syllable words needing just fifteen letters.
But Saramago can go shorter. Consider his take on the economic/political summit known as G20:
On the subject of the chimera that is the G20, just three questions:
Here the text reveals the effect of a single elegant word—a grace note—in an otherwise straightforward composition. That word is chimera. It means "illusion," or what the dictionary defines as "a fabrication of the mind." But that meaning has been abstracted from the original. In Greek mythology, the chimera was an imaginary hybrid creature: "a fire-breathing she-monster… having a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail." That metaphor transforms twenty "heads" of state into a power-hungry monster with twenty heads.
What shall we say about the nature of short writing for those, such as Saramago, who are best known for writing long? Is the short piece a distillation of something much more substantial?
In a preface to The Notebook, the Italian novelist Umberto Eco offers this reflection:
I am writing this preface because I feel I have an experience in common with our friend Saramago, and this is of writing books on the one hand, and on the other of writing moral critiques in a weekly magazine. Since the second type of writing is clearer and more popular than the former, lots of people have asked me if I haven't decanted into the little articles wider reflections from the bigger books. But no, I reply, experience teaches me… that it is the impulse of irritation, the satirical sting, the ruthless criticism written on the spur of the moment that will go on to supply material for an essayistic reflection or a more extended narrative. It is everyday writing that inspires the most committed works, not the other way round.
In other words, if you want to write long, begin by writing short.
If your goal is to write short and well, you must begin by reading the best short writing you can find. Start by keeping a "commonplace book," a notebook that contains treasured short passages from favorite authors next to bits and pieces of your own writing.
A great collector of short, vivid language was Dale Carnegie, who inspired millions of readers with his midwestern common sense and pragmatic optimism. His own phrases were quoted countless times, perhaps because he spent formative years storing the wisdom of others.
In an introduction to an anthology titled Dale Carnegie's Scrapbook, Dorothy Carnegie explains, "Dale Carnegie was a man who loved the tang of a salty phrase. In all of his reading, the hooks of his attention were barbed to catch the pungent paragraph, the apt expression, the sweeping sentence that thereafter remained fixed in his memory."
On random pages the scrapbook stores quotes from Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Emily Dickinson, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with Washington, Franklin, Emerson, and many more. Gertrude Stein ("I like familiarity. In me it does not breed contempt. Only more familiarity") bumps into Wilbur Wright ("A parrot talks much but flies little").
In his book The Man Who Made Lists, Joshua Kendall describes the life of Peter Roget, who gave us the world-famous thesaurus. As a young boy, Roget kept notebooks in which he listed words that described all aspects of his little world. "At the heart of Peter's childhood notebook are his word lists," writes Kendall, "written in a neat hand and consisting of Latin words juxtaposed with their English meanings, grouped under categories such as 'Beasts,' 'People,' 'Parts of the Body,' 'Of Writing, Reading, etc.,' 'In the Garden,' 'Of the Weather,' " and many more.
Roget would have been a fan of Ben Schott's Original Miscellany, a tiny volume filled with both practical knowledge and interesting curiosities. The Twelve Labors of Hercules rub up against the names of Santa's reindeer; World War II postal acronyms (BURMA: be upstairs ready, my angel) from soldiers to their sweethearts back home sit nicely upon a list of Internet emoticons including "wearing a turban": @:-). Quotations from Samuel Johnson abound, including this one on the last page:
There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.
Let it be, Dr. Johnson, let it be.
1. Keep a daybook devoted to short writing.
2. Include examples of great short writing collected from other sources.
3. Write short pieces of your own inspired by the ones you've collected.
4. Over time, examine your short writing for seeds of longer pieces.
5. Practice writing plain sentences that contain a grace note, one interesting word that stands out, such as Saramago's chimera.
6. You will run into great short writing in the most surprising places, from restaurant menus to rest room walls. Record these in your daybook or snap a photo with your cell phone.
Study short writing wherever it finds you.
When it comes to the English language, writers cannot afford to be snobs. I may study the language of a writer such as Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Kidnapped, but I am even more interested in the mangled language of a real ransom note.
Have 50.000$ redy 25.000$ in
20$ bills 15.000$ in 10$ bills and
10.000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days
we will inform you were to deliver
We warn you for making
anyding public or for notify the Police
The child is in gut care.
Indication for all letters are
and three hohls.
This note, one of several delivered after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, became a key piece of evidence in the conviction and execution of Bruno Hauptmann for the crime. The grammatical mistakes and phonetic spelling were the first clues that the kidnapper was of German descent.
The British author David Lodge says it best: a novelist, or any writer, "cannot afford to cut himself off from low, vulgar, debased language." Nothing expressed in language is irrelevant for the learning writer, not the chants of soccer hooligans or the list of ingredients on a box of cake mix.
My reading and writing career, for example, began with baseball cards.
I was a first grader when I learned to decode the letters on the pages of my Dick and Jane reading primers, and while the "stories" in those books were stultifying, there was a genuine thrill of discovery in turning those letters into sounds and those sounds into meaning.
But because I was born in New York City in 1948, my little existence was electrified by the golden age of baseball. I owned boxes and boxes of baseball cards, which we collected, traded, and "flipped" in a variety of competitive games. The cards—which back then came with slabs of fragrant bubble gum—featured images of the players, sometimes in photographic portraits, sometimes in action. I still own a few favorite cards, including five from the career of the famed baseball man Don Zimmer, who has now spent more than sixty years in baseball as a player, coach, manager, and consultant.
His 1954 card describes him as a prospect for the Brooklyn Dodgers: "Don was leading the American Association in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, July 7, 1953, when he was struck in the head by a pitch, missing the remainder of the season.… Don has aspirations to some day become a Major League manager [irony unintended!]" A cartoon at the bottom of the card shows a bride and groom surrounded by baseball players: "He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 18, 1951."
It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard that I learned not just the background of the players but the rules of the game, its history and traditions, and, best of all, its language and slang: A "blue dart" was a line drive. A "can of corn" was an easy pop fly. "Chin music" was a pitch up and in.
It took me years and years to get out of the habit of reading the backs of cereal boxes as I ate my Wheaties or Rice Krispies. There was adventure in those texts back then, promises of special prizes inside the box, trinkets such as siren whistles and magnifying glasses, or stories about famous athletes like Lou Gehrig.
The boxes are not as interesting these days, but I have saved a beauty, a box of Kellogg's Raisin Bran from 2003. The phrase "Two Scoops!" is prominent on the front. On one side panel, under the phrase "High In Fiber," is a list of nutrition facts. But the jackpot for breakfast table readers is on the back, a quiz that asks you to match up short quotations with the famous people who uttered them.
Who said, "If my husband ever met a woman on the street who looked like the women in his paintings, he would faint"? OK, that has to be Mrs. Pablo Picasso. Correct. (Answers are on the inside of the box.) "Be nice to people on your way up because you might meet 'em on your way down"? Sounds like the gritty New York City talk of Jimmy Durante. Correct! (OK, so I got 16 out of 18 wrong.)
Short writing experiments assault me from every direction. I find six hundred websites devoted to fortune cookie messages, including the following:
- "Bread today is better than cake tomorrow."
- "A feeling is an idea with roots."
- "Cookie says 'You crack me up.' "
And my favorite: "Ignore previous cookie."
There may not be a smaller tablet space for short writing than those heart-shaped Valentine candies carrying love messages. My favorites are the old-school "Oh you kid" and "Hubba hubba," with these new ones for journalists, submitted by an author named j-love:
- "Luv byte"
"Roy Peter Clark has compressed a lifetime of learning and love of language into How to Write Short. An engaging, entertaining, indispensable guide to the art and craft of concision."
--James Geary, author of The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism and I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World
"We're writing more than ever before, all of us, on screens big and small, and the pressure is on to make our characters count. In this book, Roy Peter Clark show us how, and more importantly, why it's worth the effort. How to Write Short is both a deeply practical guidebook and an annotated collection of concise gems from some of the world's greatest writers and journalists, not one of them longer than 300 words. Roy's message is clear: great writing is a matter of craft, not word count. How to Write Short will make you a better writer at any length."
--Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
"How to Write Short both instructs and delights, in equal measure. On every page there is some useful advice and an amusing observation or illustration. Roy Peter Clark's many fans know that (extremely) diverse examples are one of his specialties, and this book doesn't disappoint. Open it up at random and you'll find quotes from Oscar Wilde, Steven Wright, Dorothy Parker, and Gypsy Rose Lee. And that's just one page! Read this book!"
--Ben Yagoda, author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It and How to Not Write Bad (forthcoming 2/2013)
- "How to Write Short comes at the perfect time and enshrines Roy Peter Clark as America's best writing coach. Who else could masterfully tease the secrets of short, powerful writing from unexpected sources -- the Bible, Shakespeare, Tom Petty, and Abe Lincoln? This book should be on every serious writer's shelf." --Ben Montgomery, staff writer, Tampa Bay Times
- "A fun, practical guide to writing little from a guy who's written a lot. Respected journalist and writing teacher Roy Peter Clark really knows his way around a sentence. Learn from him." --Christopher Johnson, author of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little
- On Sale
- Aug 27, 2013
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little Brown Spark