Ever read a book that makes you cranky? A year or so ago, I attempted to read How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, author of 17 books on journalism and writing. At the time, I was so frustrated that I put the book down. But one winter weekend, as snow fell over the Northeast, I was determined to conquer it.
Yes, I read to the end, but whined a lot. Let’s start an obvious irony: Mr. Clark has written 50,000 words (in more than 200 pages) about how to write short.
All that content might have been justified, but the book is heavy on examples, light on advice. Mr. Clark seems to believe that if you see good writing, you’ll know what to do. So while quoting Muhammad Ali (“Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee”) or Henny Youngman (“I take my wife everywhere, but she always finds her way home”) is entertaining, it doesn’t help me understand how to write a clever quip.
But my perseverance did yield some helpful nuggets. Here are 7 tips on how to write short:
- Before you start writing, ask yourself: “What’s my point?”
- “Begin the story as close to the end as possible.”
- Think visually. “Writing tight involves more than leaving out words. It also involves laying out words—laying them out on the page, the physical presentation of your writing” through sidebars, subheads, footnotes, paragraphing and checklists. William Brohaugh, author of Write Tight.
- Focus. Don’t think reports or letters, advises CBS radio correspondent Peter King; think “picture postcard.”
- “Murder your darlings.” That’s advice from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. As Mr. Clark explains, it means you need to cut fancy flourishes that you love but don’t contribute to the focus.
- Include a “gold coin, a reward for the reader.”
- “Cut big, then small. Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.”
That’s all you need to know in 326 words. (You’re welcome.)