I’m used to writing short. A radio commentary runs five hundred words; an editorial column, about a thousand; a post to this blog somewhere in-between. One of my best-paying jobs requires turning a thirty-minute interview into four hundred and fifty words and reviewing a book in one hundred and fifty.
Writers are always told, “Write to your audience.” I assume my audience is multi-tasking – either driving, clocking miles on a treadmill, or on the pot. As writers, we can hope for constipated readers, but I don’t think we can count on it.
Nor is writing short confined to non-fiction. The historical trend in fiction has been toward shorter and shorter. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1748) is generally credited as the longest novel in the English language. Even abridged versions of Clarissa are long – on a par with the novels of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and other eminent Victorians, whose audience lived at the pace of foot- and horse- travel. In our cyber-age, novels have dropped to 80,000 words, and flash fiction has become all the rage.
Here are my five rules for writing short:
- Tell a story. While other species may have language, as far as we know, only humans have narrative. We take stories seriously, and we remember them. The narrative engine pulls everything you have to say.
- Be Specific. Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The plot is entirely predictable: Boy meets girl. They hate each other. They fall in love. The delight is in the details: Darcy is tall, dark, handsome and rude. Elizabeth is smart, penniless and shrewd. While a reader is free to make generalizations, it’s a writer’s job to use minute particulars to lead a reader to them.
- Hone Your Diction. Use the word that is specific and exact. As Mark Twain explains, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Use the right word. Don’t say car when you mean rust-bucket. There’s a world of difference between Pops and Daddy. Do you mean sensuous or sinewy, scrawny or slim?
- Power with Verbs. No other part of speech insinuates itself into your reader’s mind as a verb. Verbs attract attention. Verbs flirt with your readers; verbs weasel into the creases of your reader’s brain. A Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan) of the brain shows that it’s the verbs that trigger the green and red fireworks of a reader’s neurotransmitters.
- Compress. You’ve invented your story, filled it with minute particulars, fortified your verbs, and chosen your velvet words; now it’s time to cross out the unnecessary ones. Sticking to a strict word-count demands that you write to the point, with focus.
The payoff for writing short is being read. Elmore Leonard says it best, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
This post is 487 words.
Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com