I read them almost every day on Facebook or Twitter, like this one from last summer:
Fall in mud, tatter their frills
June brides drunk with rain
Thirteen simple words send me back to my childhood and on a flight of imagination. The fat bushes lined up below my brother’s bedroom window. Chubby buds spreading into top heavy blooms that sway in the wind. June showers scattering petals, like blush pink and incandescent fuchsia bridesmaid gowns swirling around a white bloom. Not a drunken sailor but a bride, tipsy on love.
When done well, short writing appears effortless. But doing it well is damn hard!
“It was a real struggle to get all I wanted to say about those blooms into 17 syllables,” Jill told me later.
Learning to write short
To learn how to craft better short writing pieces, I turned to writing coach and Poynter Institute scholar Roy Peter Clark, whose latest book, How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, was published in August. I also invited him to speak at the NASW annual meeting in Gainesville, Florida next week.
I first encountered Clark at the 2006 NASW annual meeting held in Baltimore. His session based on his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, has had a lasting impact on my craft. I’ve written about my love of these simple tools here before.
When faced with an imperfect draft, I choose a handful of the tools, apply them and, presto! instant improvement. Like plucking stray eyebrow hairs or applying a snappy new shade of lipstick. Effective and easy.
Even with these tools, I often struggle to write short, compelling stories. Like many writers, I find it much easier to write long than to write short. What appears to be a straightforward assignment for a 300-word front-of-the-book piece often consumes an inordinate amount of time to get right—and often undergoes far more editorial fussing than a 1,000-word piece.
I didn’t find them.
The more I read, the more the hinky feeling grew in the pit of my stomach. It became clear that writing short and doing it well was going to be seriously hard work.
There is nothing easy or fast about it. This is real tradecraft. There’s heavy lifting. And deep thinking. It’s like laser skin resurfacing and boob jobs and serious shit. And it requires a whole other level of commitment—one we don’t usually associate with throw-away tweets or quick, money-making 300-word news pieces.
Brief writing also demands better observation and practice. When I spoke with Clark by phone in early October, he paraphrased British writer David Lodge and said that for writers, there’s no expression of language that is unworthy of our attention. Billboards, tweets, song lyrics, advertising—“pay close attention to what’s going on and how meaning is made, what the text and subtext are and where the points of tension are.”
Every brief snippet of text, especially if it grabs your attention, is an invitation to learn more about the craft. Every tweet, text message, update becomes an opportunity to polish, perfect.
“Even in a seven-word text message, if I can make one of those words memorable or stand out or if I can put the interesting word at the end of the line, rather than hide it in the middle, you know, I’m going to try and do that.”
But there was more. On the surface Clark was talking about writing short, yet I couldn’t help but notice a deeper current that seemed to run through the book. Much of his advice about focus, knowing what to leave out, and the writer’s duty to perfect, polish and revise applies to longer features. After all, long pieces are made up of shorter segments. When I accused him of writing a trickster book that was part of a benevolent master plot to turn us into better, stronger, long-form writers, his response was the equivalent of “Busted!”
Practice makes …
Jill and her youngest daughter Clara throw down haikus as they walk to school. Jill has long recognized the value of using short writing to exercise her writing muscles in preparation for longer pieces. This training is evident in the care of her word choices and the quiet undercurrent that runs through her work. The practice requires discipline and hard work.
Clark’s new book and Jill’s example have inspired me to begin paying more attention to my short writing as well. Like this recent Facebook status update:
Post-noon walk, pen-less
Lede, ideas dispersed on the wind
Lesson learned, again
It’s not great, but it’s a start. Let the training begin.
Want to practice your short writing chops? Come join us at the NASW annual meeting, on Saturday, November 2 at 1:45pm … or share a haiku in the comments section.
Image credit: audreyjm529 on Flickr.