Yes, anticipating the social-media response has become part of the editing craft. And it makes me feel dirty. I feel as if I’m betraying generations of wordsmiths who guided each sentence and paragraph to its proper length and voice, based on exacting standards, character limits be damned. Would Barbara Epstein or Max Perkins worry that they weren’t leaving enough room in the sentence for the shortened URL? No editor of genius here.
So thank you, Roy Peter Clark, for easing my guilt and absolving me of my sins. In “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times,” the veteran writing guru not only praises Twitter’s 140-character limit as a tool for “intelligent cutting” but dismantles the staid lament that writing in the Twitter era has grown shallow, fleeting, anti-literary.
Clark is vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, and his books, workshops and speeches have trained new scribes since the 1970s. (At The Washington Post, I’ve spotted a crinkly copy of his tips pinned to the cubicle of one of our most talented writers.) But old-school experience doesn’t make Clark skeptical of all things digital. He rejoices in the quality short writing he sees everywhere, on Facebook and Twitter feeds, in text messages and Match.com profiles. And where he doesn’t, he shows how to write better — and shorter.
“In the digital age, short writing is king,” Clark says, without even trace levels of nostalgia. “We need more good short writing — the kind that makes us stop, read, and think — in an accelerating world.”
Twitter has its own shorthand cliches (“This.” “So good.” The vile “In which . . .”). Still, a bit subversively, Clark highlights the form’s usefulness by taking a sacred text for aspiring writers and editing it down to tweet-length.
“Omit needless words,” William Strunk admonishes in “The Elements of Style,” then adds a 65-word, 386-character paragraph explaining why. In four rounds of edits, Clark gets it down to 27 words and 137 characters. It comes at a cost, he admits, but learning to determine that cost is the point. “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,” Clark writes.
Confession No. 2: I love lists.
Yes, I know they’re the province of People, Men’s Health and other publications I pretend not to read. But their allure is not just for readers; lists can be an editor’s tool of last resort. When a draft is littered with interesting but disjointed insights, transforming it into a list can rescue a piece and give it a thread that pulls a reader through. (Someday, even a book review may appear in list form.)