Lean, clean, simple, direct

The Baltimore Sun

Roy Peter Clark believes in getting to the point, and he does so almost immediately in How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times (Little, Brown, 272 pages, $20): "A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct."

And then he is off, cataloging the forms that increase their impact through their brevity: the haiku, the tweet, the epitaph, the maxim, the slogan. His anthology of short forms abounds with examples, and each compact chapter ends with some suggested exercises for achieving concision. 

Cutting, with prose as with diamonds, is crucial, he says. "A good short writer," he says, "must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space." Prune the big limbs first, he advises, before shaking out the dead leaves. 

Much of his advice on writing short is applicable to longer forms as well, the kind of advice he has been dispensing for years at the Poynter Institute.* Balance and symmetry, parallelism, and subordination can aid the reader's rapid grasp of meaning in any prose form. The way he says text message and tweets can move narrative, by revealing traits of character, advancing the narrative, and placing the reader on the scene, ought not to be neglected in long-form writing, either.**

Mr. Clark acknowledges that the short form has limitations and that it can be misused in the form of disingenuous slogans and political language. But when the discipline of the short form is brought to bear, the wise writer will "grab the attention of the reader in the first ten seconds, will project an authentic voice that sounds different from the voices of others, and will provide evidence to seal the deal."  



*A personal disclosure: I have met Roy Peter Clark at Poynter Institute workshops and at conferences, and I have reviewed one of his previous books, The Glamour of Grammar. And at the American Copy Editors Society's national conference in New Orleans in 2012, at which he was the keynote speaker, he proclaimed me "the sexiest man alive." If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve. 


**A digression on long-form writing: There is some anxiety among journalists about the survival of long-form writing. The Internet appears to prize short items, and the Associated Press is advising its writers to stick to articles of 300-500 words. There are various efforts to foster the long form, as it used to appear regularly in newspapers and magazine. 

I, too, hope for the survival of long-form journalism. No one who has read, say, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Trollope's Barsetshire novels, and Patrick O'Brian's twenty-volume Aubrey-Maturin roman fleuve in their entirety is shy when confronted with text. 

But I've edited long-form articles over the past thirty-plus years, the kind that begin on Page One and occupy a full page or two full pages inside, and many of them, if not most, would have benefited by being cut ten or twenty-five percent. The long form has often been put in the service of the notebook dump, shapeless writing, and outright, self-indulgent logorrhea. 


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