Keeping things curt

Anyone who has followed my posts or read my books knows that I love long-form writing: novels, novellas, deep news stories, rich magazine stories, even e-singles. But that doesn’t mean that sentences shouldn’t be stripped to their essentials or that passages should be padded unnecessarily. Three books extol the virtues of the nonverbose, with some pretty good advice for how to keep things curt. Roy Peter Clark, the veteran writing coach at the Poynter Institute and the author of bestselling books on the craft, has now published How to Write Short—filled with strong pointers on how to write crisply. Roy was a favorite at the Nieman conferences I once directed; he’d show up in an aloha shirt, guitar in tow. His sessions mixed moments in which he would serenade writers and others in which he would gently browbeat writers into developing better habits. Clark says his emphasis is on rhetorical tools versus grammatical rules. In this new book, he praises email and Twitter, but also Shakespeare's Sonnets, the 23rd Psalm, the Gettysburg Address, and the last paragraph of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In a terrific hourlong interview on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, with Matt McCleskey sitting in as host, Clark laid out some of his powerful ideas, in his own crisp and erudite sentences. (You can tell he combines a PhD in English with years as a coach of newspapers reporters.) Here are some of my favorite nuggets from the interview:
  • “We’ve always saved short writing for our most memorable and important messages."
  • The point isn’t so much “murder your darlings” (the famous quip by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) but rather “save your darlings for another day” and “liberate your best language from the clutter that bumps into it.”
  • On Shakespeare’s “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” from MacBeth: “Something important in the beginning, title tucked in neatly, saving the most powerful word for the end.”
  • Appreciate creative friction—a rub, parallel structure with a tweak, whether Dorothy Parker's "Brevity is the soul of lingerie" or Muhammad Ali's "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
  • “Taking the familiar and tweaking it is the source of great humor and great insight.”
  • The power of the parts: Every great novel, whether War and Peace or Moby-Dick, is made up of chapters. The chapters are made up of scenes, or vignettes, or anecdotes. Every novel starts with a sentence. The sentence begins with a phrase. The phrase begins with a word.
  • If you want to write long, begin by writing short. "Call me Ishmael" is a pretty good example.
Clark also applied his ideas to online writing and offered these insights:
  • Good online writing is a process not of dumping stuff online, but sharing stuff. It’s a matter of focus (organizing principle), wit (organizing intelligence), polish (doing your duty as a writer to revise, to find best words in best order).
  • “The discipline of the poet is the discipline of the headline writer, the discipline of the 140-character Tweeter.”
  • The tweet is a wonderful place for haiku, prayer, inspirational thought, funny quick wit, or aphorism. “This is a great delivery system for either being a wise guy or a wise man or woman.”
  • “I’d like to have one of those [Twitter character] counters on all my writing screens.”
Of course, Roy Peter Clark isn’t the only author recently to advocate the short and the pithy. Check out Christopher Johnson’s book Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, which was published by W. W. Norton in 2011. Here's how I described the book when it came out:
Take a flair for words. Mix in desired meaning. Add two parts subversion. Fold in a little rhythm. Garnish with wit, and you’ve got “microstyle.” With just the right mix of pedagogy and poetry, Christopher Johnson gives you a recipe for getting your message across in today’s mediascape.
Johnson has a great blog, too. And, coming up in March, look for another Norton title, To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing, by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Fiske's book is described as "the essential guide to writing succinctly." It explains why writing concisely is a good idea, addresses the major mistakes people make, and provides an alphabetical list of common wordy phrases with suggestions to make them clear and accessible. I'd say any of these books (or an IOU in the case of To the Point) belongs (nicely wrapped, naturally) under a word lover's Christmas tree.

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3 Responses to Keeping things curt

  1. Sweety Shinde October 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Could you guide me, please?

    I am in editing phase of my mythology book on Mahabharat (India).

    It has 2 narrators taking the story forward in turns in separate chapters. As the story progresses, they need to narrate alternatively within the same chapter, in short segments or short monologues.

    What is the best way to let the reader know of change in narrator? Do I put a separator line or change the font from person A to person B or do I add title of person A or B at beginning of the paragraph? Please guide me.
    with regards
    Sweety Shinde

    • Constance Hale October 2, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Hello,Sweety Shinde,

      It’s not really possible for me to provide tutorials in the comments–for that you’d have to hire me as an editor!

      But of the schemas you suggest I would favor using different fonts or each narrator–Roman for one, italics for the other.


  2. Sweety Shinde October 3, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Thank you very much.

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