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.
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.
So how are serious problems like this reconciled within How to Write Short? They aren’t. Clark writes, “These arguments lead to an inescapable conclusion: that short writing, however crafty and clever, can be used (and has been used countless times) for evil purposes as well as good. There are many good things to sell in this world, from useful products to progressive ideas. Your soul isn’t one of them.” Yet the reader is never given any sense of how to guard against those titular “abuses of short writing” or how to unveil them in the culture because the deeper questions—Why are we writing shorter? What does this signify for our society? Is it a good thing?—are simply off the table. Asking them would interrogate the advice Clark concisely provides. Had this book been triple its length, had it towered over Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, had it adopted the cramped text of an old Dostoevsky novel, it still would not have found a place to wrestle with these questions.