Whether you identify as one or not, everyone is a writer. Between social networks, dating profiles, blogs and the day-to-day tasks of most jobs, writing is an essential skill. In How to Write Short, author Roy Peter Clark illustrates the value of brief, short-form writing in our technology-driven world, and shows you how to do it right.
This is part of Lifehacker’s book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing for nearly 40 years at the Poynter Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious journalism schools, where he is also vice president and senior scholar. He has also authored or edited seventeen books about writing and journalism, including Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, Help! For Writers and most recently, The Art of X-Ray Reading. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but with How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, Clark taps into a lifetime of writing and teaching experience to show you that just a few words can be worth a thousand pictures.
Who This Book Is For
You can find out if this book is for you with two questions:
- Do you ever write anything?
- Do you want practical advice from an expert on how to write better?
If you’re unsure, let me help. The answer to the first question is “yes”. You probably write every day. Maybe it’s a loving text message, a snarky blog comment or a status update about where you are and what you’re thinking or feeling. Either way, you’re the exact kind of writer that this book is aimed to. Sure, journalists, bloggers, novelists and marketers can all benefit from Clark’s lessons here, but it’s not exclusive to career writers by any means.
The second question is one you have to answer yourself. But it’s a lot easier to answer when you know that well crafted writing can help you better communicate with friends and family, sell yourself to others, write better reports, take clearer notes and even make you funnier. So, is this book for you? Yes.
What You’ll Get
How to Write Short is broken up into two major sections: “How to Write Short”, followed by “How to Write Short With a Purpose”. The first section is comprised entirely of tips, advice and lessons to help you write better titles, logs, reports, headlines, sales pitches, letters, notes, emails or any other short forms of writing. There are 22 brief chapters in this section, and each one has a title that explains exactly what you’ll cover. You’ll learn how to study the shorter writings of professional writers like essays, poems and even tweets so you can improve your own; how to find the main focus of a piece of writing and pull out the most important information and how other people read at a glance (and what that means for your own writing). You’ll also go over some of the most effective methods for saying a lot with a few words, how to choose your words wisely and how to cut out the extra words you use, all while seeing examples from professional writers for you to emulate. Here are a couple examples of chapters you’ll find in this section:
- In “No dumping”, you’ll learn that all writing can benefit from a set of formal writing practices, even in an informal context. Even simple messages like emails, text messages and Facebook status updates can be better understood and appreciated when you craft your words instead of dumping them — regardless of whether you use slang, abbreviations or other idioms. More importantly, you’ll see that crafting your words doesn’t take much longer than dumping them.
- In “Cut it short”, you’ll learn that there is always something you can cut from your writing without undoing the message. You’ll learn what the usual suspects for cutting are, such as adverbs, adjectives, intensifiers and so on. You’ll also learn a few simple rules (with examples) to follow when you go over what you’ve written.
In the second section, “How to Write Short With a Purpose”, you’ll learn the why of it all, and how to apply solid short-form writing to the real world. There are 13 chapters in this section, each covering a different aspect of life where writing is always present. You’ll learn how short-form writing can be used to enshrine those you’ve lost or admire, how to make your writing funnier by cutting to the punchline, how to sound wiser through the efficient use of words and sentence construction and even how to write better dialogue. Here are a couple examples:
- In the chapter “Crack wise”, you’ll learn how to study good jokes and apply the same principles to your writing. You’ll see why brevity really is the soul of wit, how to use juxtaposition to craft better zingers and that the laugh-provoking word is often at the end of a humorous quip.
- In the chapter “Sell”, you’ll learn how few words it takes to make your ideas, products or service sound great. You’ll go over famous slogans and ads, and break them down to understand why short and sweet is ideal to stand out and earn staying power in someone’s mind.
Every chapter in the book offers writing examples from real writers (from Oscar Wilde to Dave Barry) to explain and support the lesson. At the end of each chapter are useful notes, or a summary of the most important information in each chapter, as well as quick writing exercises to help you practice the tips. It may be tempting to skip ahead to the second half of the book where all of the real-world application stuff is, but start at the beginning and work your way through. Clark builds you up to that section with the basics intentionally, and references the things you learn in the first section.
One Trick You’ll Take Away
In the chapter “Entice”, Clark explains how short-form writing can be used to sell yourself better on resume cover letters, entry essays and even online dating profiles. It all breaks down into three steps:
- The Pitch: Where the writer attempts to stand apart from the masses in a sentence or two at the top.
- The Lure: Where the writer compiles evidence (anecdotes, preferences, humour) that he is worthy.
- The Catch: Where the writer ends with an irresistible call to action.
Essentially, you have 10 seconds to grab a reader’s attention, and then earn more of it after that. It’s just like a pop song — you want to hit them with a catchy hook early on. Once you have their attention, bring in the lyrics, or the reasons you’re worth their time. Remember, the first few sentences can make or break you. Keep things brief and simple.
How to Write Short is a rare book. It’s certainly an essential addition to any writer’s library, but it’s also a practical guide for everyone who tweets, comments, has to email people at work or sends a few text messages every day.
There are tips here that apply to all modern walks of life, and Clark’s language is clear enough that anyone can follow along. You don’t need to be a grammar snob to get something out of it. The tips presented aren’t difficult to put into practice either. In fact, a lot of the tips will rub off on you almost immediately after reading them. I can barely write this damn review because I’m so tempted to say something like “book is useful, not just for writers, worth a read”.
The author also follows his own advice throughout, which is perhaps my favourite thing about the book. Everything is concise and whittled down to the essentials. At no point did I feel like I was mindlessly scanning through useless factoids, or slogging through dull personal stories that had no relation to the subject. Clark injects his personality, wit and the occasional personal reference for examples, but the book is in no way about him. The book isn’t terribly short either, but it breezes by because each section is so easily digestible. This makes the book feel like a true-to-form guide, from a real expert, that’s filled to the brim with practical advice that can be easily referenced. I would write more about it, but I’m practising what I learned.
You can buy How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times in paperback for $19.