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Write Short for Fast Times

By Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.

Roy Peter Clark, How to Write Short, Word Craft for Fast Times, Little, Brown and Company, New York, published August 2013, ISBN 978-0-3162-0435-4, 264 pp.

Short is king in the digital age

“The best is yet to come.” – epitaph

Time-starved people want tight, simple and direct writing. Roy Peter Clark, a journalism professor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, delivers on his promise to teach us “How to Write Short.” Clark has authored or edited 17 books about writing, including The Glamour of Grammar, reviewed in a previous issue of Circuit. The introduction says he wrote this book to provide guidance for the new forms of communication that have emerged in the digital age, including email, instant messaging, text messages, blog posts, hyperlinks, website writing and navigation, commentary, updates, headlines, summaries, search engine optimization (SEO), Q&As and slide shows. The art of writing short, meaningful messages is not new, however. Poetry has always relied on the power of a few well-chosen words. What about telegrams? “Save our souls (SOS).” “Congratulations to the bride and groom on your wedding day.” Twitter with its 140-character limit is the telegram of the digital age.

The book is divided into two sections: the how and the why of short writing. I have selected a few points to highlight below.

Essential elements

According to Clark, the essential elements of short writing are: word order, ellipses, levels of formality and informality, details and parallel structures. Short writing has always been important (think of announcements, diaries, epitaphs, labels, lyrics, sonnets, and haikus), but it now goes hand in hand with the trend toward abbreviations, acronyms and conciseness. The purposes are still the same:

  • to enshrine
  • to amuse
  • to explain
  • to narrate
  • to alert and inform
  • to remember
  • to inspire
  • to sell
  • to converse

Contrast and parallelism

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
– A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

I have often thought of how well the above quote by Dickens applies to my own life. This short sentence is a perfect example of plain language conveying deep meaning through contrast. Contrast makes a sentence memorable by adding an element of persuasion or surprise. Roy Peter Clark looks at how to make short writing memorable by analyzing various “literary bites.” Many of the best ones work their magic using parallel elements (with variation) (pp. 99-102).

Clark explains that a chiasmus is a figure of speech in which the order of words in two parallel clauses is reversed, e.g., “When it comes to writing, it’s not the length of the text that matters, but the power of the text for the length.” In Greek, chiasmus means a crossing (p. 102).

Powerful patterns of two or three

Another way to make your writing pop is to explore patterns of two or three (p. 92). The following quote is known to translators as the reviser’s prayer, but it has been most notably adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. Three elements (serenity, courage and wisdom) say it all:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
– Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

Mon Dieu, donnez-moi la sérénité
D'accepter les choses que je ne puis changer,
Le courage de changer les choses que je peux,
Et la sagesse d'en connaître la différence.
– Prière de la Sérénité, Reinhold Niebuhr

Is it faster to write something short? Of course not. Nevertheless, short, memorable writing engages the reader. It is not enough to translate these days, we need to write well in an understandable, readable manner. Clark is very inspirational and fun to read with lots of tips. He suggests that we look for examples of short writing for inspiration and remember the power of short writing in these fast times.

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