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How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark

December 29, 2016


“I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” This quote and similar variations have been credited to Pascal, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau, among others. It’s popular because it’s clever, surprising and exemplifies the power of short writing. It’s also true—writing short takes more time.

Writing short should be the aim of any writing. Good writing is efficient writing—not necessarily short in length, but no longer than it needs to be. When I taught, I would tell my writing students that their first task is to figure out what they want to say—no more, no less—and say it in the simplest way possible. In the world of product development, there is a thing called the MVP—the minimum viable product. What is the simplest thing we can make as a basic prototype of our idea? In writing, there should be the SVP—the shortest viable passage. The shortest passage required to convey your idea. Anything beyond that must add something new to the text—either in meaning or style. If it isn’t additive, it doesn’t belong. As Clark notes, “How, what, and when to cut in the interest of brevity, focus and precision must preoccupy the mind of every good short [my edit] writer.”

But this book isn’t just about editing. Short writing requires elegance too. It requires craft. The ability to find the one evocative word that does the work of four lazy words. An “ear” for writing and an understanding of the interconnected parts, the machinery of the sentence. So while Roy Peter Clark has titled his book How to Write Short, it’s really about how to write well.

The first part of the book is about seeing and understanding short writing. Each section has relevant, often entertaining examples and ends with challenges to drive the subject home. The second part of the book is about putting those lessons to work both in writing and editing. Here’s my favorite advice from How to Write Short (some of it paraphrased):

Collect short writing samples. Billboards, tweets, lyrics, poetry, fortune cookies, street signs—short writing, good and bad, is all around us. Start a collection. Study why the good writing works (and why the bad writing doesn’t).

Be an active reader. Read with a pen. Write in the margins. Ask why the writer made the choices she did. Would you make the same choices?

Learn how to manipulate the elements.  Balance, pace, rhythm, surprise, word choice, implication. These are the levers you can pull to take your reader exactly where you want them to go.

Understand how tension works. The best writing—even a single sentence—has tension. A little rub, a push pull. I talk about this a lot in my writing class, that there must be a sense of conflict/resolution. It can be as simple as a question/answer, a word play or an internal allusion, but the human brain likes the sense that a connection has been made, a problem solved, a loop closed.

Stick the landing. “Always try to put the funniest word at the end of your sentence underpants,” Clark jokes. But it is such an important point. Emphasis naturally wants to be at the end, so craft your sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books to stick the landing.

Know the easy edits. Fluff words, redundant words, cumbersome phrases, inactive verbs, adverbs, intensifiers. Locate them, annihilate them.

Be able to kill your darlings. Writing teacher Donald Murray makes this salient point about editing: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.” You must be able to identify the core of what you’re saying and be willing to kill the rest.

Use evocative, visual language.

 This is a very good book on writing, worth a spot on the shelf. While it may not measure up to some of the classics, it has the advantage of being of the moment. Examples of great short writing from Twitter, current comedians and recent ads, for example, make it very relevant. And, not surprisingly, it is very well written. Any writer or teacher of writing will pick up at least a thing or two from How to Write Short.

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