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How to Write Short
Word Craft for Fast Times
By Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2013 Roy Peter Clark
All rights reserved.
Collect short writing.
Remember the movie kid who said, "I see dead people"?
I see short writing.
I collect it all in my daybook: haikus and sonnets, aphorisms and parables, prayers and insults, bumper sticker slogans and T-shirt rhymes, blurbs, titles, ads, street signs, marginalia, bulleted lists, song lyrics, announcements, propaganda, and names, names, and more names. I can also go new-school: tweets, blog posts, updates on social networks, e-mails, text messages, and more.
I'm in an airport motel in Providence, Rhode Island, toweling off after a shower, when my eye catches a green tag hooked onto the towel rack.
"Reuse or replace?" it reads.
And then: "To reuse: hang towels up; to replace: place towels on floor."
Then at the bottom: "Take care. We owe it to one another."
The style is spare. Absent are words such as environment, sustainability, or climate change. The messenger counts on my knowing the backstory: that needless laundering of towels helps no one. The slight message does heavy work. It offers readers a choice, then a course of action and, as in a parable, a moral as a reward.
I prowl the stacks at a bookstore near Brown University called Books on the Square. A volume called The Notebook catches my eye. The author is José Saramago of Portugal, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In short daily passages from September 2008 to November 2009 the author chronicles the final year of his life, offering sharp opinions on politics, literature, and culture. Some entries measure five hundred words or more, but the average length is shorter. Before it became a book, the entries ran as blog posts.
It fills me with joy that an eighty-seven-year-old author would keep a blog. He stands with the octogenarian golf writer Dan Jenkins, who still reports on tournaments live via Twitter. A third musketeer could be Herman Wouk, who is publishing—at the age of ninety-seven—an epistolary novel narrated through not just letters but e-mails, text messages, and tweets.
Saramago blogs on November 25, 2008, after a press conference in São Paulo, Brazil:
I was surprised that several journalists wanted to ask me about my role as a blogger ... my decision to write on the "infinite page of the Internet." Could it be, to put it more clearly, that it's here that we all most closely resemble one another? Is this the closest thing we have to citizen power? Are we more companionable when we write on the Internet? I have no answers; I'm merely stating the questions. And I enjoy writing here now. I don't know whether it is more democratic, I only know that I feel just the same as the young man with the wild hair and the round-rimmed glasses, in his early twenties, who was asking me ... questions. For a blog, no doubt.
This passage ends with a delightful jolt, a standard move in clever short writing. That intentional sentence fragment stops the paragraph short, a passage that rolls downhill from a first-person statement to a meditation on writing, technology, and democracy to a vivid physical description of a young blogger—all hitting a full stop with the starkest language, five one-syllable words needing just fifteen letters.
But Saramago can go shorter. Consider his take on the economic/political summit known as G20:
On the subject of the chimera that is the G20, just three questions:
Here the text reveals the effect of a single elegant word—a grace note—in an otherwise straightforward composition. That word is chimera. It means "illusion," or what the dictionary defines as "a fabrication of the mind." But that meaning has been abstracted from the original. In Greek mythology, the chimera was an imaginary hybrid creature: "a fire-breathing she-monster ... having a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail." That metaphor transforms twenty "heads" of state into a power- hungry monster with twenty heads.
What shall we say about the nature of short writing for those, such as Saramago, who are best known for writing long? Is the short piece a distillation of something much more substantial?
In a preface to The Notebook, the Italian novelist Umberto Eco offers this reflection:
I am writing this preface because I feel I have an experience in common with our friend Saramago, and this is of writing books on the one hand, and on the other of writing moral critiques in a weekly magazine. Since the second type of writing is clearer and more popular than the former, lots of people have asked me if I haven't decanted into the little articles wider reflections from the bigger books. But no, I reply, experience teaches me ... that it is the impulse of irritation, the satirical sting, the ruthless criticism written on the spur of the moment that will go on to supply material for an essayistic reflection or a more extended narrative. It is everyday writing that inspires the most committed works, not the other way round.
In other words, if you want to write long, begin by writing short.
If your goal is to write short and well, you must begin by reading the best short writing you can find. Start by keeping a "commonplace book," a notebook that contains treasured short passages from favorite authors next to bits and pieces of your own writing.
A great collector of short, vivid language was Dale Carnegie, who inspired millions of readers with his midwestern common sense and pragmatic optimism. His own phrases were quoted countless times, perhaps because he spent formative years storing the wisdom of others.
In an introduction to an anthology titled Dale Carnegie's Scrapbook, Dorothy Carnegie explains, "Dale Carnegie was a man who loved the tang of a salty phrase. In all of his reading, the hooks of his attention were barbed to catch the pungent paragraph, the apt expression, the sweeping sentence that thereafter remained fixed in his memory."
On random pages the scrapbook stores quotes from Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Emily Dickinson, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with Washington, Franklin, Emerson, and many more. Gertrude Stein ("I like familiarity. In me it does not breed contempt. Only more familiarity") bumps into Wilbur Wright ("A parrot talks much but flies little").
In his book The Man Who Made Lists, Joshua Kendall describes the life of Peter Roget, who gave us the world-famous thesaurus. As a young boy, Roget kept notebooks in which he listed words that described all aspects of his little world. "At the heart of Peter's childhood notebook are his word lists," writes Kendall, "written in a neat hand and consisting of Latin words juxtaposed with their English meanings, grouped under categories such as 'Beasts,' 'People,' 'Parts of the Body,' 'Of Writing, Reading, etc.,' 'In the Garden,' 'Of the Weather,'" and many more.
Roget would have been a fan of Ben Schott's Original Miscellany, a tiny volume filled with both practical knowledge and interesting curiosities. The Twelve Labors of Hercules rub up against the names of Santa's reindeer; World War II postal acronyms (BURMA: be upstairs ready, my angel) from soldiers to their sweethearts back home sit nicely upon a list of Internet emoticons including "wearing a turban": @:-). Quotations from Samuel Johnson abound, including this one on the last page:
There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.
Let it be, Dr. Johnson, let it be.
1. Keep a daybook devoted to short writing.
2. Include examples of great short writing collected from other sources.
3. Write short pieces of your own inspired by the ones you've collected.
4. Over time, examine your short writing for seeds of longer pieces.
5. Practice writing plain sentences that contain a grace note, one interesting word that stands out, such as Saramago's chimera.
6. You will run into great short writing in the most surprising places, from restaurant menus to rest room walls. Record these in your daybook or snap a photo with your cell phone.
Study short writing wherever it finds you.
When it comes to the English language, writers cannot afford to be snobs. I may study the language of a writer such as Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Kidnapped, but I am even more interested in the mangled language of a real ransom note.
Have 50.000$ redy 25.000$ in
20$ bills 15.000$ in 10$ bills and
10.000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days
we will inform you were to deliver
We warn you for making
anyding public or for notify the Police
The child is in gut care.
Indication for all letters are
and three hohls.
This note, one of several delivered after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, became a key piece of evidence in the conviction and execution of Bruno Hauptmann for the crime. The grammatical mistakes and phonetic spelling were the first clues that the kidnapper was of German descent.
The British author David Lodge says it best: a novelist, or any writer, "cannot afford to cut himself off from low, vulgar, debased language." Nothing expressed in language is irrelevant for the learning writer, not the chants of soccer hooligans or the list of ingredients on a box of cake mix.
My reading and writing career, for example, began with baseball cards.
I was a first grader when I learned to decode the letters on the pages of my Dick and Jane reading primers, and while the "stories" in those books were stultifying, there was a genuine thrill of discovery in turning those letters into sounds and those sounds into meaning.
But because I was born in New York City in 1948, my little existence was electrified by the golden age of baseball. I owned boxes and boxes of baseball cards, which we collected, traded, and "flipped" in a variety of competitive games. The cards—which back then came with slabs of fragrant bubble gum—featured images of the players, sometimes in photographic portraits, sometimes in action. I still own a few favorite cards, including five from the career of the famed baseball man Don Zimmer, who has now spent more than sixty years in baseball as a player, coach, manager, and consultant.
His 1954 card describes him as a prospect for the Brooklyn Dodgers: "Don was leading the American Association in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, July 7, 1953, when he was struck in the head by a pitch, missing the remainder of the season....Don has aspirations to some day become a Major League manager [irony unintended!]" A cartoon at the bottom of the card shows a bride and groom surrounded by baseball players: "He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 18, 1951."
It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard that I learned not just the background of the players but the rules of the game, its history and traditions, and, best of all, its language and slang: A "blue dart" was a line drive. A "can of corn" was an easy pop fly. "Chin music" was a pitch up and in.
It took me years and years to get out of the habit of reading the backs of cereal boxes as I ate my Wheaties or Rice Krispies. There was adventure in those texts back then, promises of special prizes inside the box, trinkets such as siren whistles and magnifying glasses, or stories about famous athletes like Lou Gehrig.
The boxes are not as interesting these days, but I have saved a beauty, a box of Kellogg's Raisin Bran from 2003. The phrase "Two Scoops!" is prominent on the front. On one side panel, under the phrase "High In Fiber," is a list of nutrition facts. But the jackpot for breakfast table readers is on the back, a quiz that asks you to match up short quotations with the famous people who uttered them.
Who said, "If my husband ever met a woman on the street who looked like the women in his paintings, he would faint"? OK, that has to be Mrs. Pablo Picasso. Correct. (Answers are on the inside of the box.) "Be nice to people on your way up because you might meet 'em on your way down"? Sounds like the gritty New York City talk of Jimmy Durante. Correct! (OK, so I got 16 out of 18 wrong.)
Short writing experiments assault me from every direction. I find six hundred websites devoted to fortune cookie messages, including the following:
"Bread today is better than cake tomorrow."
"A feeling is an idea with roots."
"Cookie says 'You crack me up.'"
And my favorite: "Ignore previous cookie."
There may not be a smaller tablet space for short writing than those heart- shaped Valentine candies carrying love messages. My favorites are the old-school "Oh you kid" and "Hubba hubba," with these new ones for journalists, submitted by an author named j-love:
"I'm ur tease"
"Lede me on"
Look at the sources of short writing gathered for this chapter, from ransom notes to baseball cards to cookie fortunes to heart candies.
Short texts written for one reason can be creatively repurposed for just the right occasion. Consider my encounter with an old-fashioned nautical ship's wheel, used as a decoration at the Bayboro Cafe in St. Petersburg. As I read the settings for steering, I noticed that the progression of words could stand for romantic progress, a voyage on the sea of love:
Prepare yourself to find interesting short texts in strange and surprising places. Some clever authors, especially in the postmodern era, look for unusual spaces to fill with text. No writer is better known for this than Dave Eggers, especially in the appendices to the paperback edition of his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Among the least literary spaces in a book is the copyright page, so what is the reader to make of this from Eggers?
The author wishes to reserve the right to use spaces like this, and to work within them, for no other reason than it entertains him and a small coterie of readers. It does not mean that anything ironic is happening. It does not mean that someone is being pomo or meta or cute. It simply means that someone is writing in small type, in a space usually devoted to the copyright information, because doing so is fun. It has no far-reaching implications for the art, nor does it say anything of importance about the author, or his contemporaries, or his predecessors, or successors. It is simply the use of a space because that space is there, and the use of it is entertaining. It should not make you angry, and it should not influence in any important way your reading of this appendix, or the book it appendicizes.
Write short in surprising spaces.
An epilogue: Just a few days ago I ran into Beau Zimmer, a young Florida journalist and a grandson of Don Zimmer. "Please extend to your grandparents my warmest wishes on their sixtieth wedding anniversary," I said. "I know they were married at home plate in Elmira, New York."
"You must have owned his baseball card," said Beau.
Excerpted from How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark. Copyright © 2013 Roy Peter Clark. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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