What’s the best way to write in the digital age? Short, according to Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “The Internet has given us unlimited space to express ourselves and too often this leads to flabby writing,” he says. On the flip side, we now have many great short forms like tweets, status updates, and texts. But mastering short forms requires practice. Which is where Clark’s recent book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times can help.
Some useful tips, distilled.
Beware unlimited space. Never dump your notes online, and always take the time to proofread for typos and grammatical mistakes–even in texts and tweets. “I reject the notion that this takes too much time,” Clark says.
Put the most powerful and emphatic words at the end of the sentence, tweet, text, etc. Take this line from Macbeth: “The queen, my Lord, is dead.” Shakespeare could have written this line to read: “The queen is dead my Lord” or “My Lord, the queen is dead” or Yoda-like, “Dead the queen is, my Lord.”
“Shakespeare’s version is best,” says Clark. “He puts an important word at the beginning–queen–and saves the most important word until the end–dead. The Brits call a period a “full stop.” That exactly describes the rhetorical effect here. You’re more likely to notice something at a stop sign than when you’re cruising at 50 miles down the highway.”
Take Ying and Yang or salt and pepper. These dualities create a “rub”–i.e. friction. “Have you seen the Amish Mafia?” Clark asks. “I mean Amish and Mafia! Those things don’t go together.” In a digital space that is so dense with information, Clark says these juxtapositions really grab people’s attention.
Always kick off copy with an enticing lede–i.e. information that is both important and interesting. This is what journalists call good “news judgement.” Compare these two headlines and ledes.
From the AP
Latest Developments in the Occupy Protests
“Police cleared New York City’s Zuccotti Park early Tuesday so that sanitation crews could clean the site …”
From Bloomberg News
NYC Police Remove OWS Protesters
“New York City police in riot gear swept into a Lower Manhattan park earlier today to remove Occupy Wall Street demonstrators…”
Guess which story garnered more shares?
On the subject of headlines, I asked Clark to come up with a few suggestions for this story. He offered “Want Attention? Write It Short” and “From Proverbs to Twitter: Short Writing Delivers.”
Whether one of these hits the mark is now in my editor’s hands … (So wordy!–Ed.)