Review of Roy Peter Clark: How to Write Short – Word Craft for Fast Times
In a classic Simpson’s episode (aren’t they all classics…) dutiful wife Marge is cooking Homer microwave meatloaf. The usually impatient husband is beside himself waiting…
Homer: Is it done yet? Is it done yet?
Marge: Your meatloaf will be ready in eight seconds, Homer.
Homer: D’oh! Isn’t there anything faster than a microwave?
When Twitter was launched in 2006, the 140-character limit was highlighting Homer’s hurry: message faster.
Twitter wasn’t created on a desert island. Its success reflects the pace of our digital landscape. The world is faster and our attention shorter. This double whammy makes writing short today’s essential skill. There is no longer time to dawdle and dribble.
This is why How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark is such a vital tool. It’s a book for now. It’s a skill we all need to master. And we can all apply it everyday in our emails, text messages, status updates, headlines, web copy and social profiles.
To capture and retain anyone’s attention we need to be concise and to the point in our messaging.
For me, I’ve been practicing to write short for over ten years through Book Rapper – a book summary demands to be written in this way. I’m proud to say I’ve come along way – and it’s only taken 60 issues!
My sole complaint about this book is that I wish it had been written a decade earlier. It would have made my journey faster and easier.
Roy Peter Clark
How to Write Short is authored by one of America’s most influential writing coaches, Roy Peter Clark. He has written multiple books, worked as a journalist and coached writers – Pulitzer Prize winners.
The best part of How to Write Short is that it’s a DIY course. There are 35 chapters filled with sparkling examples and ‘grace notes’ that are your action plan for improving your short writing. All you need is to do the work.
Here is a short sample of How to Write Short:
- Collect short writing – Step one: notice short writing. When you notice the good stuff you’ll start to see short writing as a great opportunity. For example, Book Rapper, ad copy and graffiti on a bathroom wall.
- Look for long – Step two: when reading notice when too many words are used. The opposite of short is the opportunity for writing sharper.
- Avoid compression – Writing teacher Donald Murray famously suggested: “brevity comes from selection and not compression”. Don’t leave out important elements; leave out wasted words.
- Pick precise phrases – Use clever words and phrases to say more with less – ‘wasted words’ adds more punch than ‘it was a waste of words’.
- Love the lyric – Study songs to see how the great writers paint a picture with rhyme, repetition and ruthless efficiency. Poetry works too.
- Set limits – In the digital world, space is unlimited. Don’t let this be an excuse for bloating your blog. Set a concise deadline for how many words you will use. Longer is not better if no one is reading.
- Contrast for cut-through – Use black and white elements to sharpen the tension in your writing. Consider: old/new, wild/mild, hot/not, tradition/innovation, long/short. Remove the gray.
- Change your pace – Not everything needs to be short. Part of the art of writing well is to provide variation, contrast and tension and you can do this by writing a mix of long and short sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Think fast and slow.
- Timing yourself – How long is your message? Can you speak it in a sound byte? A tweet? An elevator pitch? Sometimes short writing is the entire message and sometimes it’s a headline in a bigger story. Message management requires flexibility.
- Say it in six – Famously, Hemingway wrote a story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” You can practice this in your emails every day. Can you say it in six?
Write short to make your mark in the digital world. And use this book as your guide. I am.
How to Write Short is one of our recommended best books for writers and authors.