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.