Confessions of an editor: A review of ‘How to Write Short’ by Roy Peter Clark

Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. He most recently reviewed “This Town.” Follow him on Twitter: @carloslozadaWP .

Confession No. 1: I edit with a tweet in mind.

In 14 years as a newspaper and magazine editor, I’ve collected editing phobias, habits and tricks, even a list of forbidden phrases. Recently, I’ve added one more: When I’m editing an essay or opinion piece, I try to make sure the final version includes some memorable lines that I imagine getting posted, shared, tweeted and retweeted. I’ll even slice a smart but lengthy passage for that purpose. “Trust me,” I advise the author, “you’ll get more readers this way.”

(Little, Brown) - “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” by Roy Peter Clark.

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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.)

Though he doesn’t get into BuzzFeed listicles, Clark blesses lists as a “reliable and practical form of short writing,” mainly because they’re kind to the reader. “The most important effect of any list is to create white space on the page,” he notes, “making for a relaxed visual environment in which information can be scanned and understood.”

That’s writing-coach-speak for “easy on the eyes.”

Confession No. 3: Sometimes,
I write the headline first.

This one deserves serious penance. How dare I label a piece before the reporting, thinking and writing are complete?

But I dare. When an editor faces dozens of decisions each day on whether and how to move forward on an idea for a story, the headline test helps separate maybes from no-ways. Sure, the headline may end up changing multiple times before publishing, but if you can’t even imagine a compelling title that captures the pitch, why proceed?

Readers make the same judgment, which is why Clark urges writers and editors to spend lots of time on headlines. “Online readers are scanners,” he writes, “making quick decisions on what to read and when to leave one text for another. It is often a headline that seals the deal.”

Clark also wades into the debate over search-engine-optimized headlines (packed with keywords that Google will recognize) vs. social headlines (that humans will like and share on social media). His position is unsurprising: “I, for one, will not stand by and let a phrase as ugly as search engine optimization destroy the craft of great headline and title writing.” Instead of SEO headlines, Clark argues for SVO headlines: subject, verb, object.

Of course, one of the greatest newspaper headlines of all time — the New York Post’s “Headless Body in Topless Bar” — lacked a verb. But its author, V.A. Musetto, was let go from the paper this month because of budget cuts. Maybe the search engines win after all.

Confession No. 4: The writer and editor in me don’t like each other.

Clark cites the late Pulitzer winner Donald Murray’s dictum about concision: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.” He also offers his own version: “Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.”

As an editor, I don’t just prune, I slash and burn. But the writer in me desires what the editor in me cannot abide. I treasure every precious construction, every not-so-clever aside. (Like this one.) So the cuts I make to my own drafts are marginal. I compress rather than select; shake, never prune. Until another editor does it for me.

My reluctance is pointless, because we don’t need many words to evoke beauty and emotion, let alone deliver insight and clarity. Clark’s favorite short writing includes the lyrics of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” and John Updike’s one-paragraph 1964 essay, “Beer Can.” He serves up the six-word story attributed to Hemingway — “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” — to highlight the “six-word revolution” of memoirs and stories of that length. And on Twitter, Clark points to the discipline and versatility of writers as different as media critic Jay Rosen and Tampa Bay Times reporter Stephanie Hayes.

He also reminds us that the Hippocratic Oath, Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and the final paragraph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speechall come to roughly 1,000 words.

Put together.

Confession No. 5: Everything I do has been done before.

I like to imagine that my editing techniques spring fully formed from my mind — but Clark shows me that they’ve all been thought of already. And expressed better.

Slightly more than half the book is devoted to such techniques, including pacing and structure. Clark boils down old truisms in simple ways: “Tweak the predictable,” because readers rely on patterns but revel in surprises (like when Dorothy Parker said that “brevity is the soul of lingerie”). Or: “If two examples divide the world, then the addition of a third element encompasses the world.” As in, beginning, middle and end. Faith, hope and love. Moe, Larry and Curly.

Elmore Leonard’s death this past week sparked a mini-debate about whether the crime novelist’s famous writing rules should be followed, even though Leonard made clear that he was just explaining what worked for him, given what he wanted to achieve. Similarly, Clark’s book ends up being less about how to write short and more about why.

We do it for much the same reasons we speak and live — to honor and enshrine, to spread laughter and wisdom, to persuade and surprise, to love and comfort, to define and understand. “Achievement in craft only matters when attached to a noble purpose,” Clark writes. Which means that writing short and long can serve the same ends.

This union is expressed well by a writer who excels in all forms. “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.”

Umberto Eco. A bit wordy, though. Clark edits him for Twitter: “If you want to write long, begin by writing short.”

carlos.lozada@washpost.com

Twitter: @carloslozadaWP

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HOW TO WRITE SHORT

Word Craft for Fast Times

By Roy Peter Clark

Little, Brown. 264 pp. $20

 
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