Writing Short: What I Do For You

A summer has passed, and I am writing on this blog again. This time it’s after I’ve been considering just what it is that I offer my clients, both existing ones and ones that have not yet reached me. What do I do that adds value to their business? What do I do that no one else does better? There are many writers available online, even some offering rock-bottom prices for their work (but remember, you get what you pay for — do you want just words, or actual writing?). But here’s what I do that others don’t: I write short.

Short-legged dachshund.

Short… you know, like a dachshund. (image: Michal Zacharzewski)

 

Writing short isn’t as easy as you might think. Anyone can write a sentence to say what they want to say, but figuring out what you actually want to say and just saying that is a different skill. An unskilled writer knows what they’re trying to say, but doesn’t actually say it, because they don’t know the right words, or because they can’t get the words from inside their head to the page. Mark Twain criticized James Fenimore Cooper for his poor writing in the “Leatherstocking Tales.” Those are rules I can follow, that others can’t:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

There are 11 other rules in the essay too, but there are the ones I’m writing about now. “Writing short” requires focus: figure out what’s most important about the subject of the piece, and say just that, quickly. It’s what editors do in newspapers and online, when trying to get you to read their content (I haven’t been on Fark in a long time, but I know they used to pick the version of a story submitted by the person who had the best headline). Yes, the headline itself is a short version of an article, one designed not necessarily to deliver the information, but to get you to spend time and possibly money reading the entire story.

There’s also TV and radio news, where writers consolidate an entire newspaper article or even a piece put together by an on-camera reporter into a paragraph. Try this exercise: Watch the 11 p.m. news one night, and look for the big story, the one a local reporter is on camera taking about. Then watch the 6 a.m. news the very next morning. That same story will probably be there, using a lot of the same video, but simplified, shortened to just the key pieces of information.

A short news story like that, one the anchor reads while you the viewer looks at scenes of people doing something, or terrible destruction (house fires, say), is a paragraph of text, about 20 seconds long while reading it out loud. You have to tell people what happened and what its long-term effects are, all in 20 seconds. It can be done, by writers who know how to write short.

That’s one of the skills I can offer my clients, using “the right word” and not extra stuff. I talked about it a little bit on my revised LinkedIn page, and I’m spreading the word everywhere else I write too.

Also, my occasional series on the Kalamazoo Can-Do Kitchen and its graduates continues this month with features on two businesses in Greater Kalamazoo Women’s Lifestyle magazine.

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