My book How to Write Short was inspired by a story I heard from NPR anchor Scott Simon. He described how his step-father challenged the idea that a picture was worth a thousand words. He listed the following historical documents:
- The Hippocratic Oath
- The 23rd Psalm
- The Lord's Prayer
- Any Shakespeare sonnet
- The Preamble to The Constitution
- The Gettysburg Address
- The final paragraph of the "I Have a Dream" speech
If you add all the words in all those documents, he said, they total fewer than 1,000. By my count, they add up to 996 words.
That is a wonderful lesson for all of us. Short writing was not invented in the 21st Century.
Before Twitter and Facebook, we always delivered our most important messages in the shortest forms of writing. Short writing is especially important in these fast times.
Here is my list of 25 ways to learn the short craft:
1. Keep a journal in which you practice short writing.
2. Practice short writing on small surfaces: Post-it notes, index cards, the palm of your hand.
3. A list of 25 is not an example of short writing. It’s long writing with 25 short parts — which is cool.
4. The short bits make a long list more readable, in part because they generate white space, which pleases the eye.
5. Obey Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.”
6. Beware: the infinite space on the Internet encourages airy prose.
7. The shorter the passage, the greater the value of each word.
8. Every short passage should contain one gold coin, a reward for the reader.
9. Obey Donald Murray: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.”
10. Obey Chip Scanlan: “Focus, focus, focus.”
11. Obey Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Murder your darlings”— that is, have the courage to cut those literary effects that you most like but that do not contribute to the focus.
12. Imagine a short piece from the get-go. Think sonnet, not epic.
13. Cut the weaker elements: adverbs, passive constructions, strings of prepositional phrases, puffy Latinate words.
14. The more powerful the message, the shorter the sentence: “Jesus wept.”
15. Don’t “dump” short messages. Revise, polish, and proofread everything.
16. Try your hand at short literary forms: the haiku or the couplet.
17. Read, study, and collect great examples of short writing, from the diaries of Samuel Pepys to the tweets of your favorite peeps.
18. The best place for an important word in a short passage is at the end.
19. Begin the story as close to the end as possible.
20. Food for thought: study the prose in fortune cookies and on Valentine candy hearts.
21. Cut big, then small. Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.
22. Obey Blaise Pascal: you may need more time, not less, to write something good and short.
23. Discuss this editorial: “They say only the good die young. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died last night at the age of 83. Seems about right.”
24. Write a mission statement for your short writing. Keep it short.
25. Treat all short forms — headlines, captions, blurbs, blog posts, tweets, text messages — as distinctive literary genres.
Excerpted from the book How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark. Copyright 2014 by Roy Peter Clark. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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