(Editor’s note: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” is the fourth in a series of writing and language books written by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and published by Little, Brown, beginning with “Writing Tools,” “The Glamour of Grammar,” and “Help! For Writers.” The Introduction to his new book is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. The book just came out today.)
Introduction: 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 4GS 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, Poynter’s 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 summarized 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 form 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 with 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 include a famous line form 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 122 characters. We still have room for Saint Paul’s “faith, hope, love.”
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 in 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-lines, snarky comments
- To explain: museum texts, recipes, instructions
- To narrate: micro-fiction, 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, resumes, 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 positing on social networks.
How short is short? Common sense dictations 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 divide 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 on to 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.
Related: The secrets of how to write short (Time) | Confessions of an editor: a review of “How To Write Short” (Washington Post) | A long, loving look at writing short (Visual Thesaurus)
Related training: News University’s Writing Short training package. Enter the promo code 13SHORT50 for a discount.