Writing short. Consider the significance of the two-word sentence: I do.
Roy Peter Clark, author of How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, in an interview with Katy Steinmetz, defines writing short as “300 words or fewer . . . 300 is about the number of words that appears on a single, type-written page.”
Today, for many, short writing is a tweet (140 characters) but Clark reminds us that short writing has played a significant role in “human culture, over history, to say some of the most important and most enduring things.” Clark notes, “[I]f you take the shortest versions of the Hippocratic oath, the 23rd psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, any Shakespeare sonnet, the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and the last paragraph of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ and add up the total words, it’s less than 1,000.” The Lord’s Prayer contains 66 words, the Gettysburg Address contains 286, and the preamble to the Constitution was crafted with just 52 words.
When asked by Katy Steinmetz how good writers approach short writing with the same care they would a book, Clark responds:
“The very best practitioners of short writing on blogs, on social networks, are people who are working over their prose. They’re revising it, with the same care they would if they were putting it on paper. . .When I’ve failed to do it, I’ve always regretted it, because it results in something awkward or upside-down or worse, inaccurate. A formula I learned about writing short poetry is that ultimately what you’re looking for is focus, wit and evidence of polish. Focus means that we have a keen understanding of what the message is about, wit meaning there’s a governing intelligence behind the prose, polish meaning there’s that one little grace note, that one little word in a tweet that sounds like us in an authentic way. What I’m pushing back on is the notion that this kind of writing and communication requires less care. . .These two things—speed and care—are not mutually exclusive.”
In a Washington Post review, “Confessions of an editor: A review of How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark,” Carlos Lozada provides an example of Clark’s ability to write short: “ ‘Omit needless words,’ William Strunk admonishes in The Elements of Style, then adds a 65-word, 386-character paragraph explaining why. In four rounds of edits, Clark gets it down to 27 words and 137 characters. It comes at a cost, he admits, but learning to determine that cost is the point. ‘A good short writer must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space.’ ”
Writing an obituary is a personal example of short writing that many of us will undertake at some point in our lives. By definition, it is a notice of a person’s death usually with a short biographical account. Condensing a life into a few hundred words, or less, is a difficult task. A dear friend recently asked me to help write some words about her Uncle Joe for his obituary. It was an honor to be asked. Two hours, several cups of tea, and three revisions later, the 145-word tribute was complete to “a gentle and compassionate man” who “greeted everyone with a smile.”
Six Word Story Every Day (also on Facebook) offers an interesting look at writing short. A story told in just six words. Last July, on my birthday, I began keeping a six-word-a-day journal. My entries reveal a range of daily events, reflection, contemplation, joy and sadness.
Telephone call from old friend—balance
Connected memories allow softer edged transitions
National Watermelon Day—Dad—miss you
Writers at the table: unlimited possibilities
Seafood soup: Daniel—me, cooking together
Summing up my day in just six words is a challenge. But, I have become a more “disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space.”
Novelists can write shorter, too. In “To the Quick,” a new online essay on “lowering the word count” by debut novelist Tony Tulathimutte, he recommends the “scalpel edit.” He reduced this sentence in his first draft—
“Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work”—
to five words:
“Still, it beat real work.”
Carlos Lozada notes that “Clark cites the late Pulitzer winner Donald Murray’s dictum about concision: ‘Brevity comes from selection and not compression.’ He also offers his own version: ‘Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.’ ”
Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio