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How to Write Short

Book Notes

This book was one of two books about writing recommended to me by a group of web developers and web content people.

I am glad I read it.

Clark has lots of advice, and I had to stop highlighting the book because practically the entire book became a highlight for me.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who writes, not only short form, but also long form. Many of the recommendations are common sense and common writing advice, but the entirety of the recommendations all in one place make this book so great. Half way through reading the book, I went out and bought a hard copy (hooboy, Clark, you were buried, I had to hunt for the last copy in the bookstore!).

So, yeah, if you write, fiction, non-fiction, copy, content, blogs, tweets, any sort of writing, I strongly recommend this book to you.

Consider these historical and cultural documents: The Hippocratic oath The Twenty-Third Psalm The Lord’s Prayer Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 The Preamble to the Constitution The Gettysburg Address The last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
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The baseball card, the limerick, the lyric, the ransom note, the fortune in the fortune cookie—each stands as a work with a sharp rhetorical purpose and a clearly imagined audience.
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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.
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2. Study short writing wherever it finds you.

It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard [baseball cards] 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.
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1. Imagine that an anti–Valentine’s Day movement swept America. You would still give out little heart candies, but the messages would now reflect disgust, disappointment, disillusion. Write ten that are better than “Eat your heart out.”
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4. Write a brief premise for a movie in which something discovered in a pack of baseball cards proves crucial.

5. Write a summary of a fictional story in which a message in a bottle proves to be pivotal.
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3. Read for focus.

Deadline writing requires the sharpest focus, and Von Drehle would prepare himself to battle the clock with a set of focusing questions: Why does the story matter? What’s the point? Why is the story being told? What does the story say about life, the world, the times we live in?
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2. Whatever you write, ask yourself the key questions: What’s my point? In a sentence, what am I trying to say? What is the work really about?

3. Test your short writing experiments with these additional questions:

Have I taken a detour?

Have I squeezed in extra stuff?

Have I shifted tenses or language styles?

4. Examine earlier entries in your daybook with these questions: What is this bit really about? Can I answer that question in ten words? Five? Three?
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4. Practice reading at a glance.

The at-a-glance experience is so valuable that writers and editors must take care not to undermine its effect. In other words, don’t break up a small text into smaller texts. Make sure it is published—in total—on a single page or screen. Online, add links as you must, but don’t clutter the text with so many opportunities to escape that the straight one-two-three meaning is lost.
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Consider the lessons we can draw from such an analysis of song lyrics. What practices and language moves can we apply to our own writing? Use simple words to build dramatic ideas. Depend on characters, conflict, scenes, setting, and narrators, no matter how short the story form. In music and writing, use repetition to hold narrative and thematic elements together, as in a chain, and make them memorable. Use a short text to remind readers of other short texts, enriching the experience of narrative. Remember that literal language benefits from its coexistence with figurative words, from metaphors to literary allusions to sound imagery to symbolism and more.
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Tap the power of two.

What is the difference, for example, between a report and a story? The purpose of the report, I argued, was to deliver information so that readers could act on it. A story, on the other hand, was a form of vicarious experience. A report might point you there, but a story puts you there.
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Report Story
Who Character
What Scene (what happened)
When Chronology (time in motion)
Where Setting
Why Motive
How Process

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12. Change your pace.

As a rule of thumb, the more periods there are in a passage, the slower the reader will move, since each period is a stop sign.
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And wow was this a problem I had when reading Several Short Sentences, too many breaks and too many periods.

17. Vary hard and soft words.

1. Use the Anglo-Saxon word stock to create a staccato effect or to end a phrase with a snap or punch.

2. Make a random list of English synonyms in which one word in a pair is short and the other long. To get you started: lit/ illuminated; jail/ incarcerate; piss/ urinate.

3. Look through your recent writing to see if you can substitute a long word for a short one, or vice versa. Which feels better to you?

4. Read the passages aloud to check for pace, rhythm, flow, style, and meaning.
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18. Join the six-word discipline.

It’s not clear whether Ernest “Old Papa Fuzzy-Face” Hemingway invented this bit of microfiction or merely plucked it out of a newspaper’s classified ads section. Why were the shoes never worn? Most readers assume that the baby died. But what if he was born without feet? Or with feet so big that regular baby shoes would not fit her?
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Give yourself five minutes to write five six-word phrases using each of the moves described above. Ready, steady, go!
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19. Cut it short.

A good short writer must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space. How, what, and when to cut in the interest of brevity, focus, and precision must preoccupy the mind of every good short writer.
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“Omit needless words” suggests that the writer should begin to cut a text at the word level. I am on the prowl for big things to take out. Omitting or cutting words is nickeling-and-diming a text. I want to cut big pieces if I can—twenty-dollar bills, not dimes and nickels. Remember Donald Murray’s aphorism: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.” I begin, as I wrote in Writing Tools, by pruning the big limbs before I shake out the dead leaves.
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In his book Style, for example, Joseph M. Williams offers his “Five Principles of Concision”: Delete words that mean little or nothing [kind of, really, actually]. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words [various and sundry]. Delete words implied by other words [terrible tragedy]. Replace a phrase with a word [in the event that becomes if]. Change negatives to affirmatives [not include becomes omit].
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20. Add by contraction.

Each of us seeks the level of language (including text slang, abbreviations, and contractions) that best serves our writing purposes, our authentic voices, and the most urgent needs of our audiences.

Gene Weingarten wondered what would have happened if Lincoln had decided to tweet the Gettysburg Address: “87 years ago, our dads made us free. Yay! Still want free, but hard! Fighting, dying, burying! Need more fight tho, so dead be happy.”
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I laughed at this!

21. Excerpt—but in context.

The famous writing teacher Donald Murray quotes from the Roman poet Horace: “Nulla dies sine linea,” Latin for “Never a day without a line” (of writing).
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Every writer I know has had an editor who, to save space, has cut a passage to the bone. When it’s done well, the meaning can ring clearer with fewer words. When it’s done poorly, something critical to the reader’s understanding is left behind.
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22. Surprise with brevity.

This book began with the reflection that the right words in the right order might be worth a thousand pictures. When I hear the famous words of Lincoln, or a recitation of the Twenty-Third Psalm, or the final, climactic litany of Dr. King standing before the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, I close my eyes and hear and then see images, word pictures that fill my heart and fire up my soul, language that sets my imagination soaring.
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The good and responsible writer works from a sense of mission and purpose, no matter how short the text.
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25. Sound wise.

Test your efforts against the criteria established by James Geary in The World in a Phrase. His five laws of the aphorism are: “It must be brief. It must be personal. It must be definitive. It must be philosophical. It must have a twist.”
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26. Sell.

His checklist of persuasive elements includes the following:

A clear product explanation
New features
Technical language for credibility
Resolving objections
Gender preference
Clarity and rhythm
Product service (what happens when it breaks?)
Trial period
Price comparison
Testimonial
How to order now
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27. Entice.
The best profiles seem to follow a three-part structure:

The Pitch: Where the writer attempts to stand apart from the masses in a sentence or two at the top.

The Lure: Where the writer compiles evidence (anecdotes, preferences, humor) that he is worthy.

The Catch: Where the writer ends with an irresistible call to action.
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[Dating website] offers the most thorough advice on how best to take advantage of the form. In summary:

Choose your user name carefully. (It’s the first thing people see.)
Your heading, or catchphrase, is critical. (An enticement to read further.)
The first few lines will make or break you. (I call it the ten-second rule.)
Keep things brief and simple. (No more than 250 words.)
Check spelling and grammar. (Don’t be judged for a lack of intelligence because you did not have the time or energy to check your work.)
Pay attention to the close. (Consider asking a question that invites a response.)
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Although the advice in this chapter has focused on the dating profile, the strategies for writing a good one apply across other forms of writing. Reread one of your own essays and evaluate it against these questions: Is my title or headline compelling? Do I begin the text with something irresistibly interesting? Do I reward the reader throughout with incentives to keep reading? Does my ending make the reader glad he or she has arrived? Have I purged the text of distracting and misleading errors? And finally, would a reader of my work discover in my writing voice someone worth talking to over a beer or a cup of coffee? Everything you write is, in essence, a dating profile.
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29. Reframe messages as dialogue.

1. Sit in a busy public space and eavesdrop on conversations. In your daybook, capture the most interesting snippets. Imagine a fictional scene in which that dialogue takes place.
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30. Marry words with pictures.

In Aim for the Heart, my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins argues that in good television, “pictures and words should not match,” but they should, according to Jill Geisler, “hold hands.”
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31. Summarize and define.

In an influential essay titled “Defining Deviancy Down,” former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explored ways in which behaviors once thought deviant (bearing a child out of wedlock) become tolerated, approaching normal. How you define deviancy matters greatly, argued Moynihan. If it is too easy to be marked as deviant, you probably live in an authoritarian country (consider the plight of women in places such as Saudi Arabia, where a woman’s driving a car or not wearing a head covering would be considered deviant).
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“Malesuete (adj.) Accustomed to poor habits or customs. A nice, middle-of-the-road word for describing the common flaws that afflict us all. Malesuete does not refer to the catastrophic, hair-pulling, Greek tragedy kinds of flaws, such as being the kind of person who sacrifices his own children. It is more apt for describing things like clipping your toenails in public: the minor flaws that annoy everyone around you.”
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33. Report and narrate.

More and more, news is broken not through official channels but through the collective experience of the crowd, as when a 5.9 earthquake surprised the state of Virginia and other locations on the East Coast.
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1. After more than two centuries, the basic reporting questions remain the same: who, what, where, when, why, and how. In short forms, the savvy reporter will avoid cramming the Five W’s into a text, focusing instead on one or two.

2. Reports become stories through this conversion table: who = character; what = scene; where = setting; when = chronology; why = motive; and how = how it happened.
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35. Protect against the misuses of short writing.

Attachment to a slogan can also become a substitute for healthy skepticism and critical thinking, a problem Jeffrey Scheuer attacks in his book The Sound Bite Society: “A sound bite society is one that is flooded with images and slogans, bits of information and abbreviated or symbolic messages—a culture of instant but shallow communication. It is not just a culture of gratification and consumption, but one of immediacy and superficiality, in which the very notion of ‘news’ erodes in a tide of formulaic mass entertainment. It is a society anesthetized to violence, one that is cynical but uncritical, and indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, the more complex human tasks of cooperation, conceptualization, and serious discourse.”
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“So if you are an advocate of ‘less’ government,” writes Luntz, “better to use the language of making Washington accountable or making Washington more effective.”

Here are a few of the word choices promoted by the opinion guru:

When speaking of health care reform, never say privatization; say personalization.

Never say tax reform or tax cuts; instead say tax simplification or tax relief.

Never say capitalism or global economy; say free market economy.

Never say inheritance tax or estate tax; say death tax.

Never say drilling for oil; say exploring for energy.
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People.

The move is described in this Orwell critique: “The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
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He writes, “Propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with enlightened self-interest appeals to reason by means of logical arguments based upon the best available evidence fully and honestly set forth.” The triumph of reason over passion would create a utopia.

Instead, writes Huxley, “Propaganda in favor of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God.” (The italics are mine.)
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There are many good things to sell in this world, from useful products to progressive ideas. Your soul isn’t one of them.
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2. The word propaganda once had a neutral meaning: language or other messages in support of a candidate or cause. By the end of World War II, it took on negative connotations, with associations to Nazi hate speech and literature. As a result, we no longer have a word that stands for positive, rational propaganda. Perhaps advocacy comes close. Keep your eyes open for language—including slogans and other ways of summarizing—that encourages reason over emotions and passions.
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