The Secrets of How to Write Short

"America's writing coach" explains how to artfully write a tweet, epitaph or ransom note

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Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

Roy Peter Clark is so meta. The senior scholar at the Poynter Institute has written or edited over a dozen books on writing, handing out pointers to pre-teens and Pulitzer Prize winners along the way. In his latest offering, How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times (out Aug. 27), Clark surveys all forms of short writing, from tweets and Facebook posts to ransom notes, prayers, baseball cards, sonnets, lyrics and fortunes in fortune cookies. (His favorite: “Ignore previous cookie.”) TIME spoke to Clark about his stylistic tips, how language is changing and what we can learn from Macbeth.

First things first, what is writing short?

For the book, it’s 300 words or fewer. That often constitutes “fair use” and 300 words is about the number of words that appear on a single, type-written page. But by fewer, I mean all the way down to messages that are three-letters long. The most consequential sentence I ever uttered in public is also the shortest: “I do.”

So short writing is a tweet today, but what roles has it played throughout history?

Scott Simon from NPR gave this speech at the Tucson Festival of Books and began with the theme that a picture is worth 1,000 words. While he accepted that notion, his stepfather had taught him this lesson: if you take the shortest versions of the Hippocratic oath, the 23rd psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, any Shakespeare sonnet, the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and the last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and add up the total words, it’s less than 1,000. What it reminds you is how important short writing has been in human culture, over history, to say some of the most important and most enduring things.

In the book you say these good writers approach things like tweets with the same care they would a book. But if you’re going to keep up with the pace of online conversation, is that really practical?

The very best practitioners of short writing on blogs, on social networks, are people who are working over their prose. They’re revising it, with the same care they would if they were putting it on paper … When I’ve failed to do it, I’ve always regretted it, because it results in something awkward or upside-down or worse, inaccurate. A formula I learned about writing short poetry is that ultimately what you’re looking for is focus, wit and evidence of polish. Focus means that we have a keen understanding of what the message is about, wit meaning there’s a governing intelligence behind the prose, polish meaning there’s that one little grace note, that one little word in a tweet that sounds like us in an authentic way. What I’m pushing back on is the notion that this kind of writing and communication requires less care … These two things—speed and care—are not mutually exclusive.

Do we end up sacrificing some quantity for quality if we take our time? 

There is an anecdote, often attributed to Mark Twain, but goes back to the French writer Pascal, who apologized to a correspondent for writing so long and says, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” In some expressions of digital writing, there are no limits. There’s infinite space. There is actually less discipline than there could be or there should be. The metric on Twitter that limits your characters, that’s a fantastic writing tool. Sometimes when I’m writing my first draft of a tweet, I’m exceeding the limit twice. But I always manage, with the discipline of that counter, to say what I want to say.

What are some of the most important stylistic rules people should be using to write short well?

There’s one that stands above all others, what in rhetoric we call emphatic word order: writing the sentence or the phrase so that the keyword lands at the end. My favorite example is from Macbeth, where the messenger comes in and says “The queen, my lord, is dead.” He just as easily could have written “The queen is dead, my lord.” But he puts an important word at the beginning and the most important word at the end. It’s that sense that this short text is completed that makes that final word or phrase almost vibrate on the page or off the screen.

A lot of the examples in your book are witty. Is it easier to write short if you’re a funny person?

The wise guys and wise gals really stand out in these [social media] platforms. But one of my great teachers and friends is a guy named Don Fry. Don desperately wants to be funny and he can’t do it. What I tell people like Don is that the fact that you can’t create it on your own shouldn’t stop you from sharing smart, interesting, short, funny, witty items with the world. That’s what smart people who are not funny do in public speaking: they cite the work of others. I do think these short forms of writing are natural containers for humor but also for surprising things like very short poems, for prayers, for epigrams. All of these forms are revived by the existence of these new media platforms.

So on the one hand we’ve been writing short forever. There’s also this feeling that, as you say in the book, we’re going from short to even shorter to acronym to emoticon. Are we evolving in a direction of shortness or is that a fallacy?

An honest answer is that I’m not sure. In the public square, the lengths of sentences have gotten shorter over time. But one of the things you hear in public life is how long congressional bills are; sometimes you’ll see them stacked up as a dramatic device. I could make a case that writing is moving in both directions. In some cases it’s longer, it’s denser, more filled with jargon and technical language than ever before. At the same time, this other thing is happening where we want to be able to communicate with each other quickly and clearly and there’s a technology that will help us do it … This is all good. The tension that I’m talking about is a sign of how interesting and creative these new forms are for people who care about language and writing.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.