Roy Peter Clark—aging journalist, Chaucer expert, esteemed writing teacher, and overall doyen at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies—has for the past decade been publishing elementary writing guides that serve as inexpensive, shockingly comparable alternatives to entry-level journalism classes at any American college or university. See: Writing Tools or The Glamour of Grammar. With his newest venture, How to Write Short (Little, Brown and Company, $20), Clark applies his levelheaded advice to post-millennial, Internet-driven media, with their momentous shift toward ever-shorter stories. As Clark writes, “So the culture turns: short, shorter, even shorter, abbreviation, acronym, emoticon.”
With that rationale, Clark employs every bromide for short writing you could think of—Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit,” William Strunk’s “Omit Needless Words,” Donald Murray’s “Brevity comes from selection not compression”—in a book that hopes to defend the literary value of the short form at a time when it has been rebuked by an older generation of writers and readers who see the recent drop in word-counts as just that—a descent. The 65-year-old Clark, then, represents an admirable minority of baby-booming apologists for the massive trend in Western culture toward attenuated writing. This hip anachronism manifests in his newest book in somewhat unfortunate ways, though.
Here’s Clark on the transformative effect of technology on media platforms: “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we’re soaring high above Oz, looking down like a Google Earth search.”
Clark introducing a chapter on the ubiquity of short writing: “Remember the movie kid who said, ‘I see dead people’?…I see short writing.”
Clark sharing one of his favorite emoticons — @:-) — for “wearing a turban.”
Clark concluding a chapter on close reading with a peppy imperative: “Put on your special X-ray glasses and study the work.”
And Clark cracking the topical gem: “[A]nd yes, I have an App for that on my iPhone.”
I spent serious time trying to determine if the author of How to Write Short knew that jokes like this telegraph an older writer’s desperation to curry favor with post-millennials. It’s hard to tell. Either way, Clark has embraced the recent changes in our writing culture and hopes to make the best of it. For a reader who wants these changes analyzed socially or questioned morally, I’m sorry to report that Clark does neither, really, though this has little to do with the book’s intended length or word-limit. But I’ll get to that.
How to Write Short offers the practical definition of “short” as text that falls under a 300-word limit. Because of his primary thesis—“that we can build a bridge between old and new forms of effective short writing”—Clark mines everything from commercials to the Psalms, ransom notes to the Gettysburg address, baseball cards to the work of Bryan A. Garner, heart-shaped valentine candies to 19th-century poetry. Watching Clark select from this range is dizzying and fun. Over time, these examples begin suggesting more abstract, thematic definitions of “short.”
One such definition encompasses the fully-considered writing that is learned from very careful reading. Clark sees the shift toward short writing as an opportunity to refasten our attention to details that are too often ignored in mainstream writing, especially in journalism. This is How to Write Short at its most interesting and innovative. See Clark’s fascinating reading of William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow or Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” for an abbreviated clinic on syllabic rhythms and assonance, precise word choice, dramatic sentence structure, and pictorial symbolism. Of course, there’s no fundamental reason why this kind of writing can’t take a long form. That it appears in Clark’s book as short text is only because analyzing one line of such writing usually produces five to 10 lines of analysis. The shorter stuff is simply more conducive to criticism.