How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times
by Roy Peter Clark
“A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct… Think of how grateful you are as a listener when the graduation speaker, no matter how powerful, delivers the goods in ten minutes rather than twenty, or, even better, five minutes rather than ten.”
This book consists of 35 short chapters. The first 22 explain techniques. The last 13 address different kinds of short writing, such as headlines and titles, photo captions, selling, lists, and dialogue.
Clark tells us to tweak the predictable. “While the backbone of reading comes from predicting a pattern, the soul of it comes from brilliant surprise.” Another tip: “The best place for an important word in a short passage is at the end.”
One path to learning short writing is to follow good role models. One of Clark’s examples is Peter King, a correspondent for CBS Radio News, who “has mastered the craft of distilling long, technical reports into ninety-second news updates… As a correspondent, King knows that if he writes a report of one hundred words, it will take him thirty seconds to read it on the air.” Estimating the reader’s time burden sounds like a useful metric for other types of writing as well.
Clark cites Joseph Sugarman, author of The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, on the importance of a strong opening. “The first sentence must be short, compelling, and easy to read… the second sentence is an invitation to keep reading.”
White space and page layout (or screen layout) are also important considerations in appealing to busy readers. The author quotes William Brohaugh’s strategies for “nonverbal streamlining” which include sidebars, subheads, footnotes, paragraphing, and checklists.
Rewriting is an essential part of good writing. Careful writers “revise their writing online—no matter how short—with the same rigor they would bring to editing the chapters of a book… ’No Dumping’ is not a bad motto for how to write well on the Internet.” Clark frowns upon the “nanosecond news cycle” in which articles are haphazardly published.
Addressing Strunk and White’s advice to “omit needless words,” Clark writes, “Remember Donald Murray’s aphorism: ‘Brevity comes from selection and not compression.’ I begin, as I wrote in Writing Tools, by pruning the big limbs before I shake out the dead leaves.”
Clark’s sense of humor comes through in this book. He includes examples of humorous short writing. My favorite is from a T-Shirt: “If life gives you melons, You might be dyslexic.” Ha! Don’t forget to tip your waitress.
Chapter 6, Write in the Margins, struck a chord with me. The author writes about his college professor, Rene Fortin. “‘To be a real reader,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to mark up the page.’ … In a single class, Dr. Fortin persuaded us that what we once thought of as vandalism—writing in books—was an indispensable tool of learning. … It will help to remember that writing in the margins is for an audience of one—the writer. The purpose is not publication but learning, thinking, analyzing, discovering, and remembering.” I wish I had taken Dr. Fortin’s class. I did not figure this out until I was in my 30s.
Clark, Roy Peter. How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast times. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2013. Buy from Amazon.com
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