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HOW TO WRITE SHORT by Roy Peter Clark


Word Craft for Fast Times

by Roy Peter Clark

Pub Date: Aug. 27th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-316-20435-4
Publisher: Little, Brown

A veteran writing teacher at the Poynter Institute returns with some ideas that writers can learn from the short forms that now proliferate—from tweets to text messages to bathroom scrawls (really).

Clark’s (Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, 2011, etc.) text resembles just about any other in the self-help genre: short, snappy chapters (and sentences and paragraphs), lists (bulleted and otherwise) and end-of-the-chapter suggestions for additional activities (he calls these “Grace Notes”). The advice he offers is a mixture of the traditional and the novel. He suggests aspiring writers should keep a commonplace book filled with examples of short-and-effective writing gleaned from our contemporary short-form environment. His thesis is patent: If writers desire to write long, they should “begin by writing short.” Clark spends the majority of the book examining various places where short texts occur and explaining how writers can, and should, benefit from them. His sources are in some cases surprising, sometimes not: baseball cards, book blurbs, marginalia, blogs, Zach Galifianakis–like quips, haiku, single-sentence stories, T-shirt slogans and profiles composed for online dating sites. Among the most unusual are text messages sent during a psycho’s armed attack in Norway. Clark offers some more literary examples, as well, ranging from an Updike paragraph to the Gettysburg Address and the writings of Samuel Johnson. The “Grace Note” sections are generally unremarkable, with suggestions ranging from, “Write a brief premise for a movie” to, “Spend time and energy on titles and headlines.” He advises writers to learn different ways to form lists in a text, then closes with some warnings about the power of short writing to harm as well as benefit (Orwell and Huxley appear here).

Writers can surely benefit from practicing some of these tiny techniques, but voracious reading, writing, traveling, thinking and feeling can help even more.