Sometimes it feels like we’re drowning in information.
And that information–every text, Tweet, meme, slogan, or headline–takes the form of short writing.
It would be easy to assume that short writing is a product of the digital age, but in actual fact it has been used–often with significant impact–for far longer. From the graffiti-inscribed walls of Pompeii, to the final desperate telegrams dispatched from the Titanic, short writing has always played a vital role in human communication.
Today, in a world built on speed and information, it is more important than ever to be able to write short and do it well.
This week on #TheBookshelf, we’re looking at How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark.
Clark is an author and editor who has taught writing at the prestigious Poynter Institute for Media Studies for more than 30 years. He has authored or edited nineteen books about writing, including his excellent craft book, Writing Tools.
Put it this way, what Roy Peter Clark doesn’t know about journalism and writing probably isn’t worth knowing.
As a freelance writer and editor, I do a lot of short writing–social media posts, book blurbs, titles, bios, etc.–both for clients and to promote WoodvineWrites–and I love to play with short writing, especially the challenge of a haiku or a 280 character Tweet, so I was eager to dive in and see what this book has to offer!
How to Write Short is, in itself, an homage to the art of writing short. Comprised of 35 bite-sized chapters, the book is divided into two sections: how to write short, and why we write short–including the practical uses of short writing.
The chapters are well laid out–with the student in mind. Each one begins with an anecdote that puts the chapter’s topic into context. Then comes the lesson. Here, Clark expands on the themes from the chapter intro with clever and accessible examples ranging from the Bible to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In between you’ll find well-chosen examples of short writing by Oscar Wilde, Tom Petty, Dorothy Parker, The Sopranos, Abe Lincoln…and many more. Each chapter wraps up with a section called “Grace Notes”–short exercises designed to reinforce the chapter’s lesson and ultimately build a better writer.
Clark covers a lot of ground, from the often hilarious worlds of texts and online dating apps, to tombstones, tattoos, idioms, sales pitches and just about every other kind of short writing you can think of. He gives practical guidance for trimming your writing, including the vital lesson that “brevity comes from selection and not compression.”
Brevity comes from selection and not compression.Roy Peter Clark, How to Write Short
In much the same way that Clark encourages writers to find the rhythm–the music–in their work, many of the lessons in How to Write Short are summarized in rhythmic, easy-to-learn 3’s or 5’s, like “perfect, polish, revise”, “focus, wit, polish”, and Joseph M. Williams’ “Five Principles of Concision.”
Even the book’s typography and layout lend themselves to ease of learning through the judicious use of bullet points, bold type and/or italics for key ideas, words, or concepts.
We all write. We use words to sell, to converse, to amuse, to explain. With the lessons in How to Write Short, you can make every word count.
Join me next week on #TheBookshelf for some self care for editors, writers, and anyone else tethered to a desk!
(Featured image credit: Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Flickr and this fantastic article from The Atlantic.)