By Amanda Handley (Capital Chapter)
“The association of good writing with long writing is misunderstood and misapplied,” said Roy Peter Clark at the beginning of his session on how to write well and short in today’s face-paced culture.
He shared how a relative of his once pointed out that 1,000 words (the value of a picture) is actually quite a lot of words. In fact, if you look at some of our most important pieces of writing (The Hippocratic Oath, Psalm 23, the Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, any of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Lord’s Prayer and the last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) you’re still under 1,000 words. Clark stated we have always used the shortest language to communicate the most important things.
With the understanding that one can, in fact, write something well in short form, Clark began to explore what makes a good story. He realized there is a stark difference between a report and a story. They are different in purpose: a report simply relays facts, usually with the most important facts coming first. The primary purpose of a report is the efficient delivery of information to an audience that can act on it. A story, however, expands our experience. He said, “The point of a story is not to point you there but to put you there.” And the parts that make up a report can be translated into a story:
- Who becomes characterization.
- What becomes actions and the scene.
- When becomes the setting.
- Why becomes motive.
- How becomes description.
Clark discussed the ladder of abstraction and said “it is the job of the skillful communicator to master both the top (ideas and concepts) and the bottom (things we can see and feel).” To write short and to write well, Clark offered two foundations: emphatic word order and juke-joint juxtaposition.
Emphatic word order
Consider the order of the words in sentences and paragraphs. The end of a sentence is the most powerful, important location, and the middle is the least important. But the end of a paragraph is even more important than the end of a sentence. Clark explained, “The end of a sentence is a stop sign. The end of a paragraph is a stop light.” Beyond that, he also said white space is the most important form of punctuation.
Put words and phrases next to each other in unexpected ways that create the most impact. Sometimes, simply pairing seeming-opposites (like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” instead of “Vlad the Vampire Slayer”) is impactful. Other times, using parallel structure and unlikely pairs is the way to go (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”).
Take-away message for public relations professionals and all communicators: the power of a story can be delivered in 140 characters.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter since 1979. Over three decades he has served the institute as dean, vice president, senior scholar, and member of the Board of Trustees. Clark has written or edited 17 books on writing and journalism, the most popular and influential being “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” Podcasts of the book have been downloaded more than a million times. The New York Times Book Review praised Clark’s book “The Glamour of Grammar” as “a manual for the 21st century.” His most recent work includes the book “Help! For Writers,” for which there is a mobile application, and “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” Born in New York City, Clark attended Catholic schools through his graduation from Providence College in 1970. He earned a Ph.D. in English from Stony Brook University. He began his teaching career in He was hired in 1977 by the St. Petersburg Times as one of America’s first writing coaches.He is the founding director of the National Writers Workshops. His work has been featured by NPR, “Today,” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” He was selected as a distinguished service member of the American Society of News Editors, and was inducted into the Features Hall of Fame. He has received an honorary degree from Goucher College and served as a writer-in-residence at Vassar College. Clark has played in rock bands since high school and often uses music to illustrate strategies of reading and writing.