How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times (2013)
By Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown and Company
"... on the subject of short-order writing for today's online world this book is unsurpassed and likely to be unmatched for a long time to come."
American Roy Peter Clark is better known at home than abroad but deserves recognition throughout the English-speaking world. I first encountered him when I happened across his book Writing Tools – a fiendishly clever book that blew me away – which I have been recommending ever since. So now, he has a new book entitled How To Write Short and I am dying to know what this book has in store.
Clark begins by stating that he wrote this book to inform a generation of writers who in these fast-paced times of blogs and tweets need to write good short writing that “makes us stop, read, and think". The most important messages, he argues, are short, include the key elements and immediate. This can also be achieved without sacrificing literary values. In fact, short writing is nothing new.
The book contains two sections: the how and why of writing short. So let's dive in.
Learn from the best
This may seem obvious but knowing how to write short means first knowing what exactly short writing is. The 1st thing to do is to read everything around you and become a collector of short statements that really resonate, such as memorable one-liners from films or advertising. Read signs, baseball cards and even restaurant menus. Write them down. Blog about them. Tweet them. Think about what the message or story is really about. And then practice writing your own.
Another good way to approach analysing texts is to try what he calls at-a-glance reading. What can you pick up from scanning but not reading texts? Turn this into an exercise and see if what you glean matches the essence of the piece. Ask yourself, could it be shorter? Well, of course it can.
When you think about it, song lyrics need to be concise and contained. There is no room for rambling when it comes to songwriting. Even the shortest lyrics contain elements of time, setting, narrative and emotion. What's more, they often use simple words to form metaphors, imagery and symbolism with dramatic results. Most messages, advertisements or song lyrics pass us by – only the best make us stop, pay attention and think.
We all know that 3 is the magic number in speech and writing but Roy Peter Clark now sees the one-two punch as the secret ingredient of short writing. By this he means polarity, such as on/off or Yin/Yang as the literary hot and cold for injecting contrast and depth that is short and sweet. And never pass up an opportunity to include parallel for injection of power.
Other techniques for good sure writing including taking balanced or unbalanced approach, switching your pace between long and short sentences and ending your message with a punchy target word or phrase. Why not regulate rhythm and pace with Anglo-Saxon words for staccato and longer Latin-isms for spice using hard and soft words?
So, that was the warm-up. Now for work.
How to write short
How short is short? Well, forget 140 characters – train yourself in the literary art known as the six-word discipline, writes Roy Peter Clark. Short and good writing are skills (6). Say everything in just six words (6). End your sentences with a target (6). “The Queen, my lord, is dead” (6). Another way is try the inventory (6). “Affection. Erection. No protection. Injection. Infection” (6). Brilliant!
To write short you must also keep your words short, your syllable short and your characters short, so look for every chance to whittle, whittle, whittle. To demonstrate, Peter Clark takes Prof Williams Strunk Jr's original paragraph on omitting needless words from elements of style and turned what was 65 words or 386 characters into 27 words or 137 characters. “A good short writer must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space. How, what, and when to cut in the interest of brevity, focus, and precision must preoccupy the mind of every good short writer", he concludes.
The reason the web and modern-day communications are so fast and rapid is that the world is pressed for time and attention. Writing short, argues Roy Peter Clark, does the job of gaining your attention by promising not to waste your time.
All of this is a brief summation of what is found in just Part 1 of How To Write Short. Take a deep breath for the second half.
The secrets of good short copy
Writing good short copy must be done with purpose and aim, as found on the best tombstones, T-shirts, jokes, slogans, bumper stickers and newspaper headlines. There is no way to improve the words “for sale" on a sign, proving that no element of copy is too small.
The advice from Roy Peter Clark seemingly never ends: reframe your messages as dialogue (“Coffee?"); marry words with pictures (think in terms of captions); think like a lexicographer (summarise and define); present your points as lists (10 fun facts); report and narrate (stick to who what where and how); think like a headline writer (encapsulate using subject verb object) and so on and so on.
When writing profiles, the next advice is to structure your short copy along the lines of a profile statement, which will begin with a pitch to set you apart, evidence to draw the reader in and show you are worthy and end with attempting call to action that above all entices the reader with the promise of more. The best copywriters take chances to show that they aren't afraid.
Phew! As you can probably gather, the genius of Roy Peter Clark strikes once again in a book that boils down the essence of how to produce good writing. Each of the 35 chapters or sections ends with a list of exercises and practical advice for mastering the techniques that he outlines.
Books by Roy Peter Clark – and this being no exception – are always jam packed and devoid of fluff. He loves his craft and he loves to teach. These are books to keep, devour and cherish. And on the subject of short-order writing for today's online world this book is unsurpassed and likely to be unmatched for a long time to come.
About the author
Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English and editor of whichenglish.com.