Dog Eared

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A Long, Loving Look at Writing Short

I'm jealous.

That's my 2-word review of How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark, who I assume will appreciate the brevity.

In the following 800 words or so, I'll go on a bit more about why you should buy this book, which is the best writing book I've come across in donkey's years. Clark manages to capture the current moment — when texting and Twitter have helped short writing cast a long shadow — while offering timeless writing advice at the same time. Like I said, I'm jealous. I wish I had written this thing.

So what is short writing? Clark chose the arbitrary yet reasonable limit of 300 as the maximum word count for short writing, a limit that allows discussion of bumper stickers, photo captions, personal ads, and even the Gettysburg Address. Digital trends allowed this book to happen, but it's full of history and advice that transcends our current gadgets and genres. Clark splits the book into hows and whys: each chapter focuses on a type of short writing, a strategy for improving as a writer of short pieces, or a reason for short writing. For example, in the "why" sections, there are chapters on using short writing for humor, wisdom, advertisements, and memorials, among other purposes. In two "how" chapters, Clark does a close reading of the lyrics to Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" and the effectiveness of a 1-2 punch when writing short. Every chapter is closed with a series of "Grace notes" that offer additional advice and exercises. This is an extremely practical book that will surely — and deservedly — be used in many classrooms.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is its all-encompassing, non-snooty approach. Clark wisely notes "When it comes to the English language, writers cannot afford to be snobs." He lives up to that statement by discussing every form of short writing in the book, plus those found on billboards, on the radio, in boxes of Valentine candies, and beyond. Haiku, jokes, fortune cookies, advertisements, and tombstones are worthy of consideration in Clark's world, which has the virtue of also being the world we actually live in. I appreciate that world a little more now, thanks to Clark, who writes, "Nothing expressed in language is irrelevant for the learning writer, not the chants of soccer hooligans or the list of ingredients on a box of cake mix."

While reading this book, the writing teacher in me often had the urge to bash my students in the head with it — er, quote it to them. Clark does a great job of dispelling the notion that short writing is or must be worthless, and he urges writers to take pride in their work at all times. These are the words I'd like to sing from a mountaintop: "...whether the writing is formal or informal, whether it appears as a tome or a paragraph, the writer has the duty to perfect, polish, and revise, even if that work needs to be done in a minute or less." Amen. Clark's advice will help people write anything better, not just shrimpy pieces. It's a great writing book as well as a great short-writing book.

Refreshingly, Clark isn't a blind, unquestioning evangelist for short writing: he acknowledges the potential abuses of tiny text. A chapter on an ill-advised excerpt of a Martin Luther King speech (that was unfortunately carved in stone) is a powerful lesson on the dangers of incautious shortening. In fact, the whole book is animated by Clark's conviction that writing should have a purpose of some sort. Clark wants to help readers write short, but he wants them to think about why they're writing too. As he puts it, "...achievement in craft only matters when attached to a noble purpose, or at least a useful one." That's a pretty good life lesson as well.

My only gripe about this book is that Jack Handey is never mentioned. Handey — whose new book The Stench of Honolulu is so funny it's almost a crime — rose to prominence as the author of Saturday Night Live's Deep Thoughts series. Each Deep Thought was a well-crafted joke that doubled as a mockery of pseudo-wise sayings and confessional writing, such as: "To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kinda scary. I've wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time when I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad." Handey is the father of Twitter humor (which Clark does cover) and a master of short-form writing, so that's a pretty bad omission. Then again, Handey is my favorite writer, so I'm pretty biased. I'd still give this book an A+.

In short — sorry, couldn't resist — How to Write Short is timely and timeless. It's a wonderful accomplishment. I predict this book will be a huge success, which will make me compose petty, jealousy-fueled tweets and haiku. Thanks to Clark, they will be well-written.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 21st 2013, 1:09 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
I am off to buy it!
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 2:53 AM
Comment by: Rhonda H. (WA)
Your review fits the times. Twitter, texting, e-mail (so 90s), Craigslist, Facebook, etc., all call for short writings.

Revising writing to eliminate redundancy, extra articles (the, a, an), unnecessary pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives, is a challenge for writers. Teachers coach students to elaborate; once the student is proficient, teachers then push students to revise for clarity.

I agree with Clark's view that writing should be polished. Students witness my shopping list alterations (to match the store lay-out), my numerous e-mail revisions, my obsession with perfect word choice on emotional response mail I never actually send, my pursuit for perfect words to fit tone and mood, etc. If it is worth writing, it is worth revising.

Mark Twain said, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare."

Thanks for the review. I will definitely check out this book!
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 2:25 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
I hope that Clark included a section about Ashleigh Brilliant (yes, it's his real name), a very talented writer who has been writing epigrams of 17 words or less (his own self-imposed limit) since the 60s! He has written many books, many of which are collections of his illustrated short sayings with equally clever essays introducing each section. His book titles are samples of his work (sorry about the all-caps): I MAY NOT BE TOTALLY PERFECT, BUT PARTS OF ME ARE EXCELLENT ... I HAVE ABANDONED MY SEARCH FOR TRUTH, AND AM NOW LOOKING FOR A GOOD FANTASY ... APPRECIATE ME NOW, AND AVOID THE RUSH ... I FEEL MUCH BETTER, NOW THAT I'VE GIVEN UP HOPE ... ALL I WANT IS A WARM BED AND A KIND WORD, AND UNLIMITED POWER ... I TRY TO TAKE ONE DAY AT A TIME -- BUT SOMETIMES SEVERAL DAYS ATTACK ME AT ONCE ... WE'VE BEEN THROUGH SO MUCH TOGETHER -- AND MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT ... I WANT TO REACH YOUR MIND -- WHERE IS IT CURRENTLY LOCATED? ... I'M JUST MOVING CLOUDS TODAY -- TOMORROW I'LL TRY MOUNTAINS. Ashleigh is not only a brilliant writer but a perfect gentleman and a national treasure. His website, ashleighbrilliant.com , is definitely worth a look!
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 8:55 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I love writing short fiction pieces (I like a 100-word limit)--the discipline and focus are wonderful--so I think I'll buy this book, too! Thanks for the review of it.
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 9:03 PM
Comment by: Lorraine B.
Here's another review of The Stench of Honolulu: it's witless and unfunny. I'm sorry I didn't read a few pages before I left the bookstore.
Saturday October 5th 2013, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Stuart C. (Brooklyn, NY)
Thanks for a great review, Mark. The book is on my Amazon wish list," but today I become a customer! Here's an exercise I gave my business writing class: "Please shorten this memo by eliminating unnecessary words, substituting shorter words and/or combining thoughts, but retain all essential points." FYI, I, too, have author envy.

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