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Writing Tips: 25 Rules For Keeping It Short And Snappy

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The following is an excerpt from "How To Write Short" by Roy Peter Clark [Little, Brown, $20.00]. The author explores not only tweets and statuses, but prayers and haikus, in his instructional book on snappy writing.

In his book "Write Tight," William Brohaugh has a name for this strategy: nonverbal streamlining. “Writing tight involves more than leaving out words,” he writes. “It also involves laying out words – laying them out on the page, the physical presentation of your writing.” Among reliable strategies, Brohaugh lists sidebars, subheads, footnotes, paragraphing, and checklists.

There was a time when Facebook was encouraging its users to list “25 Random Things About Me” on the character, personality, and habits of the individual author. My response at the time was “25 Non-Random Things About Writing Short.” I have slightly revised that list for the purposes of this book, and you will recognize in it – to help you review – some strategies I’ve already covered, but you will also notice some new language and a few new ideas.

1. Keep a journal where you practice short writing.

2. Practice short writing on small surfaces: Post-it notes, index cards, the palm of your hand.

3. A list of twenty-five is not an example of short writing. It’s long writing with twenty-five short parts – which is cool.

4. The short bits make a long list more readable, in part because they generate white space, which pleases the eye.

5. Obey Strunk & White: “Omit needless words.” (As you’ve seen, I changed my mind on this one.)

6. Beware: The infinite space on the Internet encourages airy prose.

7. The shorter the passage, the greater the value of each word.

8. Every short passage should contain one gold coin, a reward for the reader.

9. Obey Donald Murray: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.”

10. Obey Chip Scanlan: “Focus, focus, focus.”

11. Obey Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Murder your darlings” – that is, have the courage to cut those literary effects that you most like but that do not contribute to the focus.

12. Imagine a short piece from the get-go. Think sonnet, not epic.

13. Cut the weaker elements: adverbs, passive constructions, strings of prepositional phrases, puffy Latinate words.

14. The more powerful the message, the shorter the sentence: “Jesus wept.”

15. Don’t “dump” short messages. Revise, polish, and proof-read everything.

16. Try your hand at short literary forms: the haiku or couplet.

17. Read, study, and collect great examples of short writing, from the diaries of Samuel Pepys to the tweets of your favorite peeps.

18. The best place for an important word in a short passage is at the end.

19. Begin the story as close to the end as possible.

20. Food for thought: Study the prose in fortune cookies and on Valentine candy hearts.

21. Cut big, then small. Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.

22. Obey Blaise Paschal: you may need more time, not less, to write something good and short.

23. Discuss this editorial: “They say only the good die young. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died last night at the age of eighty-three. Seems about right.”

24. Write a mission statement for your short writing. Keep it short.

25. Treat all short forms – headlines, captions, blurbs, blog posts, tweets, text messages – as distinctive literary genres.

The list, even a long one, turns out to be a reliable and practical form of short writing. Any page or screen that carries a list will shrink the grayness of a text by expanding the white space. This helps the writer in making decisions about the number of items and their order. The readers then take over, seeing the list at a glance, then deciding whether to move from top to bottom or graze their way through.

Grace Notes

1. The most important effect of any list is creation of white space on the page, making for a relaxed visual environment in which information can be scanned and understood.

2. The best lists give each element the potential to stand alone as an aphorism or tip.

3. Look for opportunities to repeat elements in lists or echo others, as when I ask the reader to “Obey…”

From HOW TO WRITE SHORT, Copyright Roy Peter Clark, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

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