We’ve all heard that “good things come in small packages”, but is this still the case when it comes to writing? Every 60 seconds, 4 million search inquiries are made on Google, 2.4 million users share content on Facebook and 277,000 tweets are tweeted. This explosion of information has resulted in decreasing attention spans and an increasing need for instant gratification – leading audiences to prefer short, clear content that provides value upfront.
Veteran writing guru Roy Peter Clark claims that truly great writers now speak volumes in a spatter of short sentences and ultra-specific acronyms. Is your short game up to scratch? Learn how to embrace brevity by following these 9 tips:
Every writer should collect works of other great writers - no matter where you may find them, explains Clark. Start keeping a daybook of thoughts and ideas from other writers’ work, and don’t forget to include your own interpretations in the margins for future use.
In Clark’s book How To Write Short, he claims that inspiration can be found everywhere, from “the chants of soccer holligans to ingredients on a cake mix box.” Every phrase serves a purpose, and endows budding writers with a new tools. Tone up your writing muscles by teaching yourself how to read short. This not only helps develop your writing, but will also strengthen your editing skills. Clark encourages writers to use Twitter’s stringent 140-character limit as a tool for “intelligent cutting,” claiming, “It’s often the final cuts, the finishing touches that create the most dazzling facetsof the diamond, the jewel of short writing ready to be polished.”
Master writing at-a-glance
In today’s fast-paced world, the average reader only spends 20 seconds on an article before bouncing to a different site. Readers on the move now expect to get their information “at-a-glance” – expecting to see highlights of the story before they commit to reading the entire piece.
However, it’s best to avoid becoming a “linkbait” writer (one who uses keyword stuffing to improve SEO and Google rankings) if you want to build a loyal audience. In the age of social media, good writing is about building rapport with your readers by creating engaging, humanised stories that encourage following and loyalty.
Think “picture postcard”
Imagine that all you had were the couple of lines on a postcard to describe your story. What words would you choose? What image would you imprint on the minds of your readers? Select the best pieces and cut anything redundant.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs, so cut them out first. Never use a sloppy adverb when a distinct verb will do. Make every word count. You’ll find that the most memorable phrases are the short ones. Shakespeare was a master of the short phrase: “the world is my oyster,” “a sorry sight,” “in a pickle,” and “break the ice” all come from the Bard’s work. Remember, a few great words can be worth a thousand pictures.
Try your hand at Haiku
Many great short writers brainstorm their ideas in Haiku form. Clark believes Haiku to be“an open door that looks shut.” At first glance, the writing may appear brief, but it lingers in the reader’s mind to take on new and profound meaning. This type of writing teaches how, what and when to cut in the interest of brevity. A great short writer must know how tosimplify without risking clarity and comprehensibility.
Keep up the storytelling
Every story follows a different pattern, but one constant involves the identification and evolution of characters. Masters of the craft build their stories through simplicity, dramatic ideas and repetition; even microbloggers can spin stories from a few selective tweets. With each new innovation in the digital age, storytelling is still prevalent. Writers have unique opportunities to embed messages and interact with readers - use these moments to your advantage.
Avoid stale cliches
Research indicates clichés are “old hat” and have little to no effect on readers. As phrases and metaphors become overused, our brains show decreased activity in the language-processing left hemisphere, as it requires decreasing mental activity to interpret the phrase. That’s why it’s worth taking those extra few moments to tweak the predictable and renew your (and your reader’s) love affair with language. Clark reminds writers, “While the backbone of reading comes from predicting a pattern, the soul of it comes from surprise.”
Don’t defy the rhythm
Great writing must have fluidity and rhythm, regardless of length. Use varations of softer tones and hard words to build anticipation and sustain interest. Double check your prose for pace, flow and style to ensure your text relates to the reader. American writing instructor Garry Provost highlights why rhythm in writing is essential:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
Learn from Text-Speak
Believe it or not, George Oswell predicted an eerily accurate linguistic revolution in his book 1984. Just like short form texting, “Newspeak” follows similar grammatical rules as English but has a much more limited and constantly shifting vocabulary. The main objective was to eradicate synonyms or atonyms, removing all shades of meaning from the English language – thus making it easier for Big Brother to control the message – and in turn, the people.
Although some may see phonetic and acronymic text-speak as a decline as step back for literature, Clark sees it as an opportunity to refine the short hand craft. Getting your message across in an information-crazed society is paramount, and learning the nuances of text-speak provides another weapon in your arsenal of short writing techniques.
Watch how Mad Men do it
Many writers turn up their noses at the marketing ploys of advertising copy – but they shouldn’t. Great copywriters and Mad men are far from means-to-an-end writers. Masters of this specialised craft demonstrate a keen sense of audience, purpose and humour that every writer should aspire to.
Clark calls this technique the pitch, lure and catch. The pitch makes the first two sentences stand out from competitors, while the lure compiles evidence laced with anecdotes and humour. Finally, the catch ends with an irresistable call to action.
In the Guinness ad below, advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO seamlessly integrates the “pitch, lure and catch” method in just 73 words. Building on anticipation, viewers are submersed in a story of a local sports hero and his race against the pint, bringing Guinness back to centre stage.
My brother’s a hero. A champion.
Everybody loves him. He’s the reason I own a bar.
Every year we have a mad race. When he reaches the buoy, I start the clock.
Man against the pint.
“I’m getting older,” he says. “One day I’ll lose,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” I say. You’ll never lose.
It takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint.
Guinness. Good things come to those who wait.
The digital age is continuously transforming writers’ perceptions and expressions, but short prose continues to maintain its grasp over readers. Audiences thrive on short writing that makes us stop in our tracks, alters our views and changes our behaviours. When all else fails, keep it short and simple.
[Picture by Jeremy Galanes]