Another abstract definition—also culturally relevant—is recognizable within the first few pages: that fetishized preference for brevity which conveniently confuses long writing for bad writing in order to dismiss harder, time-consuming work. Length is a side effect of bad writing—of its waste and turgidity—not its equivalent; if this distinction goes unmade, then longer work is easily misconstrued as contemptuous of readers. Clark is mostly aware of this confusion. He restrains himself after making the unfair comparison between the crazed 300,000-word manifesto of Norwegian mass shooter Ander Breivik (what document could be more contemptuous of its readers?) and the tender, 173-word text-message exchange between a survivor of Breivik’s rampage and her mother. But here’s Clark, two pages later: “The killer could have spent another decade writing, and used another 300,000 words, and never come close to the poignant power exchanged between mother and daughter, a love dispatch from a war front delivered in one of modernity’s most common and casual media platforms….” Clark cannot resist a juxtaposition of this power, with its binary moralistic undertones and endorsement of the platforms that compelled him to write this book in the first place.
It’s not exactly fair to complain about the failings of a how-to writer’s guide in considering its own cultural and technical assumptions. It’s outside the purview; I get that. It is disheartening, though, to see Clark so brazenly compare writing to advertising. This would be fine—who can deny the ingenuity of good ad copy?—if the author didn’t assert that the primary goal of both practices is basically the same: “To get attention.” Elsewhere, Clark writes, “Most of all, we sell ourselves. Even if we don’t sell ourselves short, we sell ourselves in short forms”; and “Everything you write is, in essence, a dating profile.” I don’t think Clark wholly believes this sort of thing; the cute tone depicts these quotes more as clever thematic summations than serious assertions. But because selling one’s self is the only motivation for writing that this book recognizes, many lines take on a mercenary flavor. The epigraph from the late activist and journalist Gene Patterson, for instance: “Don’t just make a living, make a mark.” This could mean something like Horace Mann’s “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for the world,” or just “Impress people.” In How to Write Short, it is only allowed to mean the latter.
This theme culminates in Clark’s exegesis of a commercial aired during Super Bowl XLVI. Narrated by Clint Eastwood, the Chrysler ad was a celebration of post-recession Detroit and its automotive industry, which stood as larger symbols of American grit and perseverance during difficult times. I actually remembered this commercial, which might attest to the supreme effectiveness of its script — which Clark analyzes through the lens of great short writing. Clark also identifies the ad’s rank manipulation, dishonesty, and cynicism, but never delves further than merely acknowledging them.
The truncated qualification ends up being a common technique for How to Write Short. Clark dedicates a brief chapter entitled “Protect Against the Abuses of Short Writing,” where he quotes Jeffery Scheuer from The Sound Bite Society:
A sound bite society is one that is flooded with images and slogans, bits of information and abbreviated or symbolic messages—a culture of instant but shallow communication. It is not just a culture of gratification and consumption, but one of immediacy and superficiality, in which the very notion of ‘news’ erodes in a tide of formulaic mass entertainment. It is a society anesthetized to violence, one that is cynical but uncritical, and indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, the more complex human tasks of cooperation, conceptualization, and serious discourse.
He goes on to quote equally devastating social indictments from Orwell and Huxley—and, as an alarming, antithetical example, Republican pollster Frank Luntz.