Writing Short

Writing Short is a lot harder than long writing. You may remember the famous quip by Mark Twain: “I apologize for writing you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” Writing short effectively takes more thought, knowledge, and design.

How long is short? It has little to do with actual length. A piece can read short or long, regardless of how much space it occupies. By short, we mean it seems short to readers as they read it.

Here’s the secret: selection, not compression. You write short by leaving things out, not by mashing things in. So short writing begins with simplifying, adjusting the number of subjects and details for the amount of room.

For most professional writers, editors assign the space, usually based on their publication format or their estimate of the piece’s importance. Important subjects get more space. That’s why the New York Times writes so long.

How do you calculate space? I judge it by how much explanation the readers need. If they need no explanation, the piece is short, and that’s the default. If they need some explanation, the piece is a little longer. If they need a lot of explanation, the space is large. If they need an enormous amount of explanation, you write a book. The trick is to use your space and your readers’ attention span economically.

First, lead with the essence of the piece, jumping to the action, and avoiding introductions. You decide the essence by asking, “What’s this about?” or “What’s my point?” Then type the answer as your first sentence. You may revise it later, but at least you’ve started with the heart of the matter.

Describing actions makes reading seem quick, so get to action as soon as possible, pulling your readers in and along. If you’re telling a story, they want to know how it comes out. And action requires characters.

Quotes are wonderful, and we all love them, but they slow things down and take up a lot of space. Each new character you introduce may require apparatus to get them on the stage, like name, title, etc. So you select the characters and speakers and quotes rigorously. Everything has to justify its space.

Background and context can take up a lot of space. You ask yourself what your readers already know, and how little you have to explain. Provide background in bits, parts of sentences, rather than as a separate block.

Attributing facts lets readers judge their validity, and you maintain their trust by clearly indicating where everything comes from. But attribution clutters the piece, so limit the number of sources you have to include.

You can’t simplify what you don’t understand, so short writing requires deeper gathering. You don’t have room for a lot of qualifiers and nuance.

See why short writing is harder? You don’t have as much space for devices that build authority and interest.

You also don’t have room for showy style, so you make every sentence add to the readers’ knowledge and understanding. You don’t have room for transitions, so don’t write them; readers will bridge the gaps. Finally, write an ending to cement the story in the reader’s memory. Even in very short writing, you need to close the loop so the readers can remember what you said.

Common sense would tell you that you also don’t have room for visuals, but they can save space in the body text. Push complex information into graphics, pictures, blurbs, at-a-glance boxes, sidebars, captions, and titles. One diagram can save two paragraphs describing pasta shapes.

The “look” of a piece can make it seem shorter or longer to readers. Large blocks of type, long paragraphs, and multi-page layout can make a short piece look long. Things that look long daunt readers.

As I read over what I’ve said above, I realize that all these principles apply just as well to long writing. The trick there is to make long writing read short.

[Want to share your tricks and anecdotes on writing short? Let’s hear them.]

Published in: on March 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent advice. I sometimes leave a long piece away just because it will take too much time to read and probably I will not end up understand it anyway.

  2. I have the same reaction, esp. reading the NYT. I often just pass out in the last few paragraphs. I wish people would write a short version, plus a long version for readers who want more.

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