October 29, 2008

When writing, shorter is better.

I learned that during my first year as a young editorial page editor when I asked my sister, with a certain smugness, if she ever read editorials.

“Almost never,” Ellen said immediately. “But I really like the little editorials at the very bottom of the page.”

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I soon realized that everybody liked those little editorials. Yet hoarding words while combining eloquence, precision, careful reporting — whether in editorials, blogs or stories — is an art form, among the most difficult writing imaginable. It can be a maddeningly tough assignment to churn out few words quickly.

But the briefest pieces can be unforgettable. That’s why the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address make it the most quoted speech in American history. Every word matters.

On The New York Times editorial page, words are weighed, parsed and rationed to squeeze in four editorials a day. Yet sometimes the finest writing involves those “little editorials,” often signed pieces, that anchor the bottom of the page. The TimesVerlyn Klinkenborg is a master of this short form, with an unmatched facility for vivid imagery and metaphor. Take, for example, this 342-word piece on sleepy rail commuters.

Elsewhere in the paper, the daily online contributions of Tara Parker-Pope, a columnist for The New York Times‘ Health Section, are often found on the “most e-mailed” list because of her talent for choosing interesting topics and focusing on one or two nuggets of information in a few hundred words.

That’s one of the keys, Parker-Pope says — take a slice of a topic, an overlooked detail. Consider this piece she wrote on the medications prescribed by physicians to help elderly patients deal with grief.

“Kitchen sink stories do too much,” she told me by e-mail. “If you take on a big, unwieldy topic, you can wind up with a big, unwieldy story. Our writing improves when we try to do a little less, but do it better.”

Simplicity is powerful, enabling you to highlight something that would otherwise be overlooked. Of the short articles I have written for The Times, one I wrote after the death of Texas Gov. Ann Richards got the most response because I focused on one under-reported aspect of her life — her alcoholism, and her tireless work to help others stay sober.

What follows is a list of pointers on keeping it short, along with a few story ideas:

  • Pick the topic carefully. Could you explain the story over breakfast?
  • Report in depth before you write so you will know the most important aspect of the story to highlight.
  • Details make the story more vivid.
  • Know when to stop. It’s OK to leave the reader wanting more.
  • No transitions! (from Klinkenborg)

Klinkenborg, who is in the midst of writing a book called, “Several Short Sentences About Writing,” believes that the need for transitions is greatly exaggerated.

“They’re almost never necessary, not if all the rest of your sentences — and your sense of velocity and rhythm and your ability to know exactly what you have and haven’t said — are functioning properly,” he said in an e-mail. “Many writers (and all newspapers) think readers are stupid, and they treat them that way. They assume that readers will get lost without carefully elaborated transitions between paragraphs. Most writers are taught to worry endlessly about transition. They’ve been taught the art of the flying trapeze, not how to write.”

Here’s a few suggestions for topics I would enjoy reading in a couple of upcoming categories.


  • A story on a middle-aged person who has never voted (believe it or not, I know people like this).
  • A story on someone who was undecided until recently. What turned the tide?
  • Write about one topic that got little attention, but should have, in the campaigns.


  • Find a shopping mall Santa who has done his job for years. Ask him his most memorable request — from an adult. 
  • Write a list of the most popular toys or gifts over the last 30 years.
  • How many countries have a holiday like Thanksgiving, and do they involve food?

Maura Casey is an editorial writer for The New York Times.

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