Guest Host: Matt McCleskey

Today you can carry the complete works of Shakespeare on a thumb-sized device, and the Internet provides an endless page for bloggers, journalists and aspiring writers of all stripes. But in a time-starved culture with a serious case of information overload, the skill of using fewer words may be the most effective writing technique of all. Witness the rise of Twitter, the 140-character revolution in communication. We explore the skill of short-form writing.

Guests

  • Roy Peter Clark Vice President and Senior Scholar, the Poynter Institute; Author, "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times"

Transcript

  • 13:06:40

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU sitting in today for Kojo.

  • 13:06:53

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYThese days, you can fit an entire library of books on to a thumb-size device and the internet provides an endless page for bloggers, journalists and aspiring writers of all stripes. But at the same time, we're also writing shorter, emails, texts and of course the 140-character revolution known as Twitter, we're communicating more in ever shorter formats.

  • 13:07:17

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYOne veteran writing expert thinks that's helping rather than hurting our writing. He says in a time-starved culture with a serious case of information overload, honing the skill of using fewer words may be the most effective writing technique of all.

  • 13:07:31

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYJoining us now to discuss his book, "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times" is Roy Peter Clark. He is vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:43

    MR. ROY PETER CLARKThank you, Matt. I grew up on Long Island, next to the McCleskey family...

  • 13:07:43

    MCCLESKEYOkay.

  • 13:07:45

    CLARK...had seven kids so it's a name that I honor.

  • 13:07:52

    MCCLESKEYWell, we're perhaps related somewhere back there on the way to Ireland. There have been many commentaries, of course, on the death of the English language at the hands of emails, blogs, tweets and texts. You, though, have been praised for your lack of nostalgia about writing. What is the upside to the rise of digital writing tools?

  • 13:08:12

    CLARKWell, I think that the first thing that I learned in preparing for the book was how powerful short writing could be and the models for this were not drawn from the digital age, but from a much earlier time. I attended a writing conference, a book festival in Tucson, Ariz. and NPR's Scott Simon was the keynote speaker.

  • 13:08:45

    MCCLESKEYOf course, well known to our listeners.

  • 13:08:47

    CLARKHe told a marvelous story where he kind of challenged the notion that a picture is worth a 1,000 words and he made a list of historical documents and it was very exciting. He listed the Hippocratic Oath, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord's Prayer, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18," the Preamble to the Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, and fittingly on this day, the last paragraph of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

  • 13:09:25

    CLARKAnd he said that his stepfather had told him that if you add up the words in all those historical documents, they add up to fewer than 1,000. And in disbelief, when I got back to St. Petersburg, I found them and I had various versions of those documents and I added them up and I came up to 996.

  • 13:09:48

    CLARKAnd that led me to this notion that we've always saved short writing for our most memorable and important messages. And that should be an inspiration for anybody who is writing in the digital age.

  • 13:10:04

    MCCLESKEYAnd you mentioned The Gettysburg Address as one on that list. Of course, the orator who spoke immediately before Abraham Lincoln on that day talked for two hours, I believe, but everybody remembers The Gettysburg Address.

  • 13:10:12

    CLARKYes and Everett Allen, Edward Everett was the speaker and he sent the president a note saying that he couldn't begin to hope that he had achieved in two hours what Lincoln had achieved in two minutes. And I think that it's not just the brevity of Lincoln's speech that is powerful and startling, it's the content, of course, and it's the style.

  • 13:10:54

    CLARKThe final sentence in The Gettysburg Address was more than 80 words long and so it's the variation of sentence length. It's rhythm. It's word choice. It's where the sentence ends, "of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth," leaving until the end the most powerful phrase.

  • 13:11:18

    CLARKAnd so these are methods that some of the best writers in the digital age are using to get their thoughts across.

  • 13:11:29

    MCCLESKEYNow you asked the question in your book, how short is short? And the answer to that, of course, can depend. How do you define short in the context of your book or even more broadly?

  • 13:11:41

    CLARKWell, I say that short writing is relative. Some of the stories when I was growing up that we used to call short stories, now we look at them and they're the lengths of novellas and so I chose 300 words. I chose that for a number of reasons.

  • 13:12:07

    CLARKOne it's about the number of words that you can kind of fit on a single page, typewritten. But in addition to that, what I think is important is the context in which one is writing, the platform in which one is writing, the canvas on which one is writing.

  • 13:12:32

    CLARKThree hundred words is quite a lot of words if you're tattooing something on your skin, for example, or if you're trying to fit something on a postcard or a post-it note. And so we often choose the size of the container, the size of the canvas in order to determine what the length of the message is going to be.

  • 13:12:52

    MCCLESKEYThe media makes the message?

  • 13:12:52

    CLARKUm-hum.

  • 13:12:53

    MCCLESKEYIt reminds me a little bit of recording and how songs recorded over time changed, whether you had a 78 rpm record or a 45 or the 33 and 1/3 long-playing record. The concept of what a recording was changed, so similarly depending on where you're doing your writing, does the concept change?

  • 13:13:13

    CLARKI think that one of the great tools of digital writing, I don't have a name for it, but it's that character counter on Twitter that allows you to know when your 140 characters are up. I'd like to have one of those counters, you know, on all my writing screens, some inventor out there, because it enforces a kind of discipline.

  • 13:13:42

    CLARKNow what I do, I'm a kind of a putter-inner rather than a taker-outer so what I do as a writer is I put in whatever I want to say in my message and then I'll go back and take out the useless words or the redundant words or I'll take out words which may be useful in another context, but don't compete with some of the other words.

  • 13:14:13

    CLARKSo it's, for me, it's not a process of dumping stuff online, which I think is the fallback position for too many writers. It's shaping stuff. It's a matter of focus, wit and polish, focus being the organizing principle, wit being the organizing intelligence behind the message and polish is doing your duty as a writer to revise and to find the best words in the best order.

  • 13:14:54

    MCCLESKEYAnd with so much information out there on the internet, often as you're looking down a web page, you have to decide what are you going to read, what are you not. Are you going to take the time to actually read this or do you just skim through it? So it seems clarity, both of language and presentation, is increasingly important. Would you agree with that?

  • 13:15:12

    CLARKYes, I believe that useless words and foggy words which you kind of skip over in longer texts become more irritating and become greater obstacles to comprehension in shorter texts. I'm going back to my model for this is typical of me and my sort of training and disposition as an old English major, is Shakespeare and the message that is delivered to Macbeth right before his great soliloquy at the end of the play comes the six words, the Queen, my lord, is dead.

  • 13:16:08

    CLARKAnd my daughter, who is an actor in Atlanta, played one of the three witches. I heard that line and it kind of haunted me and as I played it over in my mind, I said, you know, Shakespeare, using standard English grammar of his time or any time, could have written the Queen is dead, my lord, or my lord, the Queen is dead.

  • 13:16:34

    CLARKWhen somebody said Yoda would have said, dead, the Queen is, my lord, or something like that. But the point is, he chose, the Queen, my lord, is dead. In those six words, he put something important at the beginning. He tucked in the honorary title and he saved the most powerful and emphatic word until the end. We call that little dot a period. The Brits call it a full stop, which is a better name for it because it has a sort of a rhetorical effect.

  • 13:17:11

    CLARKWhen you stop the message, the word at the end is the one that glows, that reverberates, and that captures our greatest attention. And guess what, the Queen, my lord, is dead. If you put that on Twitter, you get a lot more room in that tweet if you want to spoil the message.

  • 13:17:37

    MCCLESKEYIt's interesting also when you mentioned full stop, it reminds me of a telegram from a bygone era where you also had to work with an economy of language because of the cost. You paid by the word. Do you see a correlation between that and what people are doing these days online?

  • 13:17:55

    CLARKYes, I have a couple of examples in my book of famous telegrams. The one that comes to mind, because there's humor attached to it, tells the story of a Hollywood reporter who was doing a profile of a famous actor and sends a telegram to that actor to check a fact about his age. And messages him and says, how old Cary Grant? To which the actor supposedly responded, old Cary Grant fine, how you?

  • 13:18:29

    CLARKAnd that kind of -- we know that there is in digital writing, it's sort of a, sorry for these big words, but it is acronymic and emoticonic. You know, it's kind of the -- sometimes it's the language of the license plate...

  • 13:18:49

    MCCLESKEYSure, FYI.

  • 13:18:50

    CLARK...the bumper sticker. Yeah.

  • 13:18:53

    MCCLESKEYROTFL.

  • 13:18:54

    CLARKI try to. It's not sort of consistent with my voice as a writer to use those things. I look too much like a geezer trying to establish street cred, but there's always been in writing the urge and the need to abbreviate. I know, do you remember the movie, the Mel Brooks movie, "History of the World: Part I"?

  • 13:19:18

    MCCLESKEYSure.

  • 13:19:19

    CLARKFor which there was no Part II, if I understand it...

  • 13:19:23

    MCCLESKEYYeah.

  • 13:19:23

    CLARK...and how Mel Brooks plays the character of Moses on Mount Sinai and how Moses delivers the law to -- God delivers the law to Moses and Mel Brooks comes walking out with these three tablets and he says to the people of God down at the base of the mountain, he says, the Lord Jehovah has ordered me to deliver to you these 15 and then he drops one of the tablets.

  • 13:19:57

    MCCLESKEYAnd it breaks.

  • 13:19:58

    CLARKIt breaks into pieces and he says, these Ten Commandments. So I mean, in a way, you could say God might have invented cutting -- how to cut good stories when he went from 15 to Ten Commandments.

  • 13:20:13

    MCCLESKEYWell, we're talking with Roy Peter Clark, vice-president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. His most recent book is called "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." One of the things you talk about in the book is how you have studied short writing over the course of your career, but also in particular for this book. And one thing you suggest that any writer do who's interested in trimming down or getting more streamlined with their writing, is to collect examples they find of short writing.

  • 13:20:40

    MCCLESKEYBut you're not talking just about books or Tweets or anything. You look -- a very broad net can be cast for examples of short writing.

  • 13:20:48

    CLARKYes. And in my research, there are these very formative examples. And so -- can I share a couple with you?

  • 13:20:58

    MCCLESKEYCertainly, go right ahead.

  • 13:20:59

    CLARKSo one of the most famous is the sentence, Jesus wept.

  • 13:21:08

    MCCLESKEYThe shortest in the Bible, I believe.

  • 13:21:10

    CLARKI would -- I can't think of a shorter one. Subject and verb. And the context, of course, is the death of his cousin Lazarus. But what's so powerful about that sentence is the way that embodies kind of 2,000 years of Christian theology about this -- the dual nature of Christ. Now, to go to a very, very different kind of sort of popular culture savior, one of my favorite television shows of all time series was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I've seen every episode of Buffy several times.

  • 13:21:55

    CLARKBut when it comes down to it, it's this amazing tension between the two elements of that title. First of all, it doesn't even seem right that traditionally the vampire slayer's name is like Dr. Van Helsing, you know, an old German geezer. Not a 15-year-old California high school girl, you know, going to the mall and trying to buy a prom dress, even as she saves the world from the apocalypse.

  • 13:22:24

    CLARKSo, I mean, one of the things I demonstrate in my book is that much of short writing embodies a kind of attention, a creative friction, a rub, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Parallel structure but with some variation.

  • 13:22:50

    MCCLESKEYMohammad Ali of course.

  • 13:22:51

    CLARKMohammad Ali. Dorothy Parker, who would take standard sentences or sayings and tweak them, saying for example that brevity is the soul of lingerie. Oscar Wilde saying, nothing succeeds like excess. Dr. Johnson saying that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. And time and time again these things that survive, they endure, you can write them on the palm of your hand.

  • 13:23:31

    MCCLESKEYFrom the Bible to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from the Gettysburg Address to Twitter, from Mohammad Ali to Dorothy Parker, we're talking with Roy Peter Clark, the vice-president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. His most recent book called "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." I want to ask our listeners, do you think Tweets, emails and text can be literary or even poetic? Let us know. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. We are taking your calls. That's 800-433-8850. You can also email us at kojo@wamu.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow.

  • 13:24:05

    MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, local host of Morning Edition here at WAMU filling in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We're going to take a short break and we'll be back with you on the other side, more with Roy Peter Clark. Stay with us.

  • 13:25:58

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of Morning Edition here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And I'm talking with Roy Peter Clark, the author of "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." I want to go straight to a phone call now. Maureen calling from Washington, D.C. Maureen, good afternoon, you're on the air. Thanks for calling.

  • 13:26:16

    MAUREENYes, hi. Speaking of brevity, moving from the sublime to the mundane, the book "City of God" (sic) has two famous opening lines. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Those are very powerful, very short...

  • 13:26:35

    MCCLESKEYWe seem to have lose Maureen. Unfortunately her call was cut short but she certainly got into the quote there from Dickens. We didn't get to hear what the second one was that she was going to reference. Perhaps she can call us back in a minute. But Roy Peter Clark, first I'll just ask you, she mentioned the first line there to the novel, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Earlier you also mentioned the last paragraph of Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington. Part of what you talk about in your book are not just pieces conceived as short pieces, but excerpts from longer pieces. How can -- how does thinking about writing short help when you're working on a longer piece?

  • 13:27:13

    CLARKThis is a very important question for writers because I believe very much -- I mean, there's some, I suppose, irony or tension in the fact that I've written a 250-word book about short writing.

  • 13:27:30

    MCCLESKEYI did think about that.

  • 13:27:31

    CLARKBut every piece of writing, no matter how long, consists of parts. A novel, "War and Peace," "Moby Dick" is made up of chapters. The chapters are made up of scenes or vignettes or anecdotes. Every novel starts with a sentence. The sentence begins with a phrase. The phrase beings with a word. So call me Ishmael is that famous three-word sentence that kicks off one of the greatest sort of literary adventures of all time, "Moby Dick." So to me it's the power of the parts.

  • 13:28:30

    CLARKIf you think of a very long, an exceedingly long literary work such as the Oxford English Dictionary of 12 volumes, that work, once you turn the page, is a compilation of thousands and thousands and thousands of short bits of clear and interesting and memorable use of the language. So I argue, if you want to write long, begin by writing short.

  • 13:29:06

    CLARKThe other thing that I think happens -- it happens in the magazine world. They know it better than any, Rolling Stone magazine on any given week will be the 50 greatest guitar solos of all time.

  • 13:29:21

    MCCLESKEYLists.

  • 13:29:21

    CLARKLists. Someone -- I believe that -- I can't say for sure but I've heard a rumor that a list I composed is going to appear -- a list about short writing is going to appear in the Huffington Post soon. And someone referred to it as a listicle. Have you heard of a listicle before?

  • 13:29:43

    MCCLESKEYI've heard the term but I...but...

  • 13:29:45

    CLARKThis is the first time I've used it. A listicle sounds too much like an ice cream treat I might've had when I was -- you know, it goes with creamsicle and popsicle and listicle. But the fact is that one of the great benefits of the list is that it combines the power of short writing. And if you compile enough of them, it gives you something very, very long like the Vietnam War Memorial.

  • 13:30:17

    CLARKThe other powerful thing about the list -- you see the cover of Men's Health or Cosmopolitan, ten ways to do this or 15 ways to do that -- is that the list by definition creates a sort of an organizing principle. And usually surrounds the text in white space so that it creates a sort of visual ventilation for the organization and meaning of the language. It's a very powerful tool. And it's ancient.

  • 13:30:54

    MCCLESKEYAnd it certainly seems like getting writing down to its most concise and perhaps highest level of clarity is not an easy thing to do. Even though you're talking about shortening it, it's often harder than writing longer. You mentioned a moment ago "Moby Dick" and call me Ishmael. I recall a cartoon -- a Farside cartoon by Gary Larson I saw a number of years ago, where it's Melville there at his desk. And you can see on the paper, call me Al and it's crossed out. And there's another one next to it. It says call me Dave. And it's crossed out. And he's surrounded by a pile of crumpled up paper and he's trying to get to the right thing.

  • 13:31:25

    MCCLESKEYSo by settling on the exact wording is a very precise and can be a very exacting process I would imagine.

  • 13:31:34

    CLARKWell, but what's good about what Larson did of course -- and I've got a whole chapter in my book devoted to this -- is he takes the familiar and he tweaks it. And that's the source of great humor and great insight. I once, at a conference, said something. I can't remember what the -- it was about. I think it was about journalism ethics and I was -- I said at the end of this paragraph, call me irresponsible, call me Ishmael. And the poor transcriber was not up on her 19th century American literature. So that when it came out in the text it came out call me responsible, call me a shmuck, which I think is appropriate and one of the great tweaks of all time.

  • 13:32:30

    MCCLESKEYWell, it certainly seems like one of the challenges for people who write a lot, be it a novelist or even journalist is having to trim things that you've worked on for so long. You want to get all this information in. But then to get it out to the audience in radio to get it to the listeners in a way that's the most understandable, you often have to cut and cut.

  • 13:32:48

    MCCLESKEYWe got a Tweet on the topic of short writing from Amy W. And she mentioned the quote, which also appears in your book, "kill your darlings." And she says that's a good one, though general purpose. But often you do have to cut out the things that perhaps -- something you otherwise might really want to tell somebody about.

  • 13:33:07

    CLARKYeah, that's "murder your darlings"...

  • 13:33:10

    MCCLESKEY"Murder your darlings," okay, is the direct quote.

  • 13:33:12

    CLARK...is the original from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch about 100 years ago, teaching students at Cambridge in England how to write. And, you know, I'm not a great proponent of that. I would say -- I'll put it this way, save your darlings for another day. There'll come a time when those bright and shiny words will stand out in their own context. I think what -- behind that notion is that what you want to do is to liberate your best language from the clutter that bumps into it. And that's what you're searching for. That's the tool you're searching for in good short writing.

  • 13:34:07

    MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones now. I'd like to hear from Edward in Washington, D.C. Edward, thanks for your call. You're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:34:14

    EDWARDHi. I just wanted to tell you about a new form of journalism we're practicing now called the trilf.

  • 13:34:20

    MCCLESKEYTriff?

  • 13:34:22

    EDWARDTrilf T-R-I-L-F.

  • 13:34:23

    MCCLESKEYTrilf, okay.

  • 13:34:25

    EDWARDThat is not a form of pornography involving triplets. It is a Tweeted report in limerick form.

  • 13:34:30

    MCCLESKEYA Tweeted report in limerick form. Okay.

  • 13:34:34

    MAUREENRight. And basically you make up a limerick about the day's news, condense it down to 140 characters and Tweet it out there. You can see some that I've done under the handle -- the Twitter handle satikhalett, that's S-A-T-I-K-H-A-L-E-T-T.

  • 13:34:54

    MCCLESKEYAll right. Well, thanks Edward, for letting us know about that. Roy Peter Clark, have you heard about Trilf Tweeted reports in limerick form?

  • 13:35:00

    CLARKNo, but I can't wait. The Tweet is almost too small a space for a limerick. I've tried a couple and managed to sort of shoehorn them in. But it's a wonderful space for haiku, for example. It's a wonderful space for a prayer or an inspirational thought. It's a wonderful space for an aphorism. And what you're seeing is both the creation of new works in tight spaces and you're also seeing the re-purposing of wise old thoughts or funny old jokes, because this is a great delivery system for either being a wise guy or a wise man or woman.

  • 13:36:07

    MCCLESKEYWe have a couple of electronic communications. One a Tweet, the other an email. A Tweet from an NPR fan who says, "Good efficient writing knows no medium. Good Twitter writers are generally good writers in email, etcetera." And then an email taking a bit of a counter approach from David who quotes Einstein. And the quote is "Everything should be as simple as possible but not simpler." He goes on to say, "Twitter's arbitrary 140-character limit replaces simplicity with stupidity." And I'd like to get your response to that.

  • 13:36:35

    MCCLESKEYBut what I'm struck by by Twitter, you mentioned earlier, the discipline of writing within 140 characters arbitrarily. It seems like if you choose a poetic form like a sonnet or a sestina or a haiku, you're also arbitrarily somewhat tying your writing to a form. But the interesting word to me was discipline. Are you perhaps -- in my experience -- and I'm certainly not a poet but I did take some creative writing classes in college -- found that working within a form it actually expanded the things I was able to do by trying to fit into the discipline of the structure.

  • 13:37:08

    CLARKThe same discipline of the poet is the discipline of the headline writer, counting words, counting characters in order to deliver news or wisdom. I'm stretching my memory here but I believe it was Dillon Thomas the poet who wrote, "I sing out in my chains." In other words, the chains he was talking about were the limitations of the poetic form, the necessity to rhyme, and the search for that rhyme which leads you to a word that you would never have thought of.

  • 13:37:48

    CLARKYou know, I have to say that I remember almost exactly sitting at my computer in 2010. And it was when the Haiti earthquake took place. And I stumbled upon a series of Twitter reports from a reporter named Joanna Smith from the Toronto Star. And I thought it was -- her reporting was astonishing and I'm going to read one that she delivered via Twitter. She wrote, "Fugitive from prison caught looting taking from police beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage." Now the only accommodation she's making is she's leaving out some of the articles a and the and she spelled through T-H-R-U.

  • 13:38:49

    CLARKBut sort of one by one, like each post on Twitter that she wrote was like a vivid snapshot of this great natural and human disaster. And together they constituted something akin to a serial narrative with short chapters or a live blog. That doesn't mean that that's the only way in which the horrors of that natural disaster are going to be communicated. They also lend themselves to book authorship. But we don't need to choose. We can use the best platform, the best genre, the best medium to tell the best version of the story for that audience that day.

  • 13:39:41

    MCCLESKEYOne other email we've gotten from Charlotte. She says, "This is fascinating but remember that Japan had the perfect brief form of writing long before anyone thought of Twitter, the haiku." Now, you said haiku often lends itself to Twitter. But she says, "How can you improve on this? Since my house burned down I now own a better view of the rising moon. Masahide from 1688." So Twitter, not necessarily you're saying trying to improve, but perhaps offering a new method for getting the writing out to the world. Is that correct?

  • 13:40:12

    CLARKI remember trying my hand at a haiku once. I love in Florida, and I was walking along the Tampa Bay and I looked down into the water and I -- I saw a scene which I described this way. Captured on the shore, chorus lines of horseshoe crabs, unlucky in love. And I had never published a haiku before, and I put it on Twitter. I got all this appreciation from other haiku aficionados who have found a new home and a community on this social network.

  • 13:40:53

    MCCLESKEYAs an aside, an easy way to write a haiku quickly, or perhaps to find out if what you're writing is a haiku, anyone who knows the melody to "Moonlight in Vermont," it's in Haiku, one, two, three, four, five. One, two three, four, five, six, seven. One, two, three, four, five. So perhaps from a bygone era there, a standard classic. But it is a way...

  • 13:41:14

    CLARKYou radio guys are so musical. It's a blessing. That's why we love listening.

  • 13:41:18

    MCCLESKEYIt is a way to figure out if you're on track for that 5-7-5 haiku or not. We're talking this hour with Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute. His most recent book is called "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." We're going to take a quick break now. We'll be back on the other side. We have a couple of callers on the line, but a couple of lines also open. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can also take part via email at kojo@wamu.org, or send us a Tweet in less than 140 characters, perhaps your haiku, @kojoshow. I'm Matt McClesky filling into today for Kojo. We'll be right back.

  • 13:43:35

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." We're speaking with Roy Peter Clark today, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute and author of "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." Want to go back to the phones right away to Chuck calling from Lovettsville, Va. Chuck, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:43:57

    CHUCKThis is a great conversation. I just wanted to point out to the importance of active voice. So many people write in passive voice which just adds words. And the other thing that I find important is people lose sight of their audience. You know, who are you writing for? What behavior do you want to change? What do you want to them to get to? A lot of writers, their stuck in their own head and they forgot about who their audience is, and once they remember who their audience is, there's a tendency to write short. Okay. That's my comment.

  • 13:44:34

    MCCLESKEYThanks so much for your call, Chuck, and Roy Peter Clark, you certainly talk about focus. That gets at that idea of audience.

  • 13:44:40

    CLARKYeah. Can I respond just to the caller's preference for the active voice?

  • 13:44:46

    MCCLESKEYSure.

  • 13:44:47

    CLARKThis is the distinction between Jane kicked the ball, and the ball was kicked by Jane.

  • 13:44:55

    MCCLESKEYMm-hmm.

  • 13:44:56

    CLARKAnd to use the passive voice, which has many important uses in language, and is often disrespected, but it's true that the active voice -- there's a preference for the active voice because it's direct, it has a sort of one, two, three, sort of subject, verb, object kind of direction. And that's one of the strategies, one of the many strategies I describe in my book. If I can play the English teacher for just a second...

  • 13:45:25

    MCCLESKEYAbsolutely.

  • 13:45:26

    CLARK...there's also something that I had relearn, and it's the power of the intransitive verb. Now, by that I mean bring people back to the fifth or sixth grade, that a transitive verb takes an object. An intransitive verb takes no object. So the sentence is not Jesus wept bitter tears, which would have been an active verb, but a transitive verb because it takes the object, but it's Jesus wept. And author's ability to end the sentence with a form of the verb, especially a one syllable verb like that, it sticks the landing as we say in Olympic gymnastics, you know? It allows you to end on the most powerful -- not just word, but also syllable.

  • 13:46:24

    MCCLESKEYAnd I would imagine indeed the ending of the word itself is powerful, the P-T, wept, it's very clear, a hard ending not a soft ending.

  • 13:46:32

    CLARKExactly.

  • 13:46:33

    MCCLESKEYDo you think about things like that as you're doing editing?

  • 13:46:36

    CLARKYeah, absolutely. I mean the English language is this wonderful mixture of short words and long words derived from our Anglo Saxon heritage and our sort of French and Italian and Latin heritage. So we tend to have along word and a short word, illuminate and lit, jailed and incarcerate, piss and urinate. We have all of these different ways of -- these choices to make which we can build in to the rhythm and flow and power and emphasis in a sentence.

  • 13:47:15

    MCCLESKEYAnd it seems life often varying that throughout a piece so you're not always doing short sentences, but also not always doing extremely long sentences can add a power to the language, certainly a flow to how it's read.

  • 13:47:27

    CLARKA series of short sentences slows the reader down. Why? Because each period is a stop sign. Now, why would he want to do that? Well, I might want to do it if -- to make something exceedingly clear that complex, or to build suspense, or to build emotional impact. But too much of that becomes tedious to the writer and very often it's the short sentence or short sentence that follows a long sentence that carries the most power.

  • 13:48:03

    MCCLESKEYSince we're talking about online communication quite a bit this hour, I'm also struck by that short sentence with a period at the end. You often online see someone write even one word with a period at the end. Worst. Day. Ever. Each capitalized, each with a period at the end, and it certainly does have that affect of -- visually, of stopping it, having a pause and then moving on. Is it doesn't fit with the rules of grammar certainly that we all learned in elementary school.

  • 13:48:29

    MCCLESKEYWhat do you think about language changing its form over time to fit the medium at hand, be it online or a movement to broadcast radio or television from newspapers. I mean, each perhaps requires its own rules. Is that fair to say?

  • 13:48:48

    CLARKWell, I prefer a different word.

  • 13:48:52

    MCCLESKEYOkay.

  • 13:48:52

    CLARKWhich is tools. And so if you look at -- I've written in the last seven years -- this is my fourth book on writing and language with Little Brown, and I'm very much tuned in to rhetorical tools rather than grammatical rules. So let's take one of the greatest maybe oldest jokes in American culture, and that's Henny Youngman's famous one liner about his wife.

  • 13:49:30

    MCCLESKEYTake my wife, please.

  • 13:49:31

    CLARKOkay. Now, how would you punctuate -- Matt, how would you punctuate that sentence?

  • 13:49:40

    MCCLESKEYHmm. Probably...

  • 13:49:44

    CLARKThis is dead time here.

  • 13:49:45

    MCCLESKEYYeah. I realize that. I'm thinking. And you may have stumped me. I've heard it, of course, said so many times trying to think how would you -- take my wife -- I would probably -- I would assume a comma and please.

  • 13:49:56

    CLARKThat’s the way that Youngman -- that's the version that appears on the title of Youngman's autobiography.

  • 13:50:04

    MCCLESKEYOkay.

  • 13:50:04

    CLARK"Take My Wife, Please." But I Googled the phrase, and I notice as people are quoting it, some people are -- Take my -- dash please. Take my wife...please. Take my wife. Please! Take my wife -- PLEASE!!! The point is that none of those versions is incorrect by the conventions of standard English usage, punctuation in any case. But depending upon how much emphasis you want to get on that last word, and how big the pause you want before it, you will use -- you will chose a different rhetorical method, a different mark of punctuation.

  • 13:51:08

    CLARKSo this is what I think people in the real world want to do. They want to -- and they need to learn the conventions and the accepted practices of standard English. But as much as that and more, they want to learn what I would call rhetorical grammar. How to make your point. How to make it well. And the verbless sentence, or the intentional fragment is often a tool of choice.

  • 13:51:45

    MCCLESKEYOne thing I'm struck by with the Henny Youngman quote, he was a stand-up comedian, so he would have been delivering that line spoken as opposed to written down, also with the writing for broadcast, of course, you can write it on the page, but then you really have to think about how it's going to sound coming out of your mouth and over the air to make sure that it's going to be understood in the best way -- in the way you intend.

  • 13:52:05

    MCCLESKEYDo you find that writing for -- you mentioned rhetorical flourishes, for rhetoric, or for delivery allowed is different than writing for the page or the screen?

  • 13:52:16

    CLARKWell, I think it is, and proof of this is an experience I had not long ago in this very room from which I am speaking to you. I recorded the audio book version of "How to Write Short," and I wound up changing dozens of sentences. So -- in some cases just so they would come out clearly, but in other cases, so that the emphasis is what I intended. And I've learned a lot from a CBS radio reporter who I mention in the book named Peter King, who has the ability to read a 200-page NASA report on some sort of accident and distill it into a 30-second radio spot.

  • 13:53:24

    CLARKAnd so for me, it's not just studying texts, great short texts. I have a chapter titled mischieviously, you know, "Follow the Work of Short Writers." And I don't mean Norman Mailer or Alexander Pope or Søren Kierkegaard. I mean, people who write short, but I couldn't resist that title.

  • 13:53:50

    MCCLESKEYWe have an email from Ken who says, "It takes thought, time, and effort to distill the message." In a quote attributed to Mark Twain, he says, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." There again, that idea of it taking time to get down to the clarity of the message. Let's go back to the phones now, quickly. Mike in Fairfax, Va. calling in. He's been on the line for a few minutes. Thanks for waiting, Mike. You're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:54:14

    MIKEWell, hello. I've been writing film notes for 30 years for the Biograph Theater, Film Forum 2 in New York, and American Film Institute Theater in Washington and brevity. I'm fascinated by this discussion because so many times I have to write up a film note in 35 words. And I just mention in passing, did you -- I didn't hear the whole discussion. Did you mention the rule of three in terms of examples?

  • 13:54:41

    MCCLESKEYNo. We have not mentioned the rule of three. Tell us.

  • 13:54:44

    MIKEOne example is an exemplar of the whole thing, and you characterize it as this. Two examples mean there's a dichotomy and it's one or the other. With three, you give the implication of ambiguity, three dimensionality. It could be this, that, or the other thing, with the implication there's more. So whenever I do a list, it's always at least three. But just how a choice of words can make a difference, I'll just give you one illustration. Released from prison, blah blah blah could be a social relevance picture, prison reform picture. But back from slammer is James Cagney in a Warner Brothers crime movie.

  • 13:55:31

    MCCLESKEYAll right. Exactly. Particularly the -- what words you choose do certainly make a difference in how you hear that. Mike from Fairfax talking about 35-word film notes, also the rule of three. Roy Peter Clark, are you familiar with the rule of three?

  • 13:55:45

    CLARKYeah. In 19 -- when was it? I guess it was -- no. It was in 2006, my book "Writing Tools" came out, and there's a chapter which says that the number of examples you use sends out a secret message to the reader, and your listener recorded it very accurately. I would add that one example, one declares the world, Elvis. Two, divides the world, Sonny and Cher. Three encompasses the world, Moe, Larry, and Curly, beginning, middle, and end, sex, drugs and rock and roll, truth, justice, and the American way.

  • 13:56:34

    CLARKIn my book "How to Write Short," I retreat a little bit from three and -- I have a chapter on it, but I also have a chapter on tapping into the power of two, the yin-yang, on-off, conflict-resolution, Yankees-Red Sox kind of tension that often is perfect for a short text. It's "Call Me Ishmael." It's not My Name is Ishmael. There's a tension between -- so does that mean Ishmael is not your real name because you're asking me to call you that, and you have a sort of secret identity.

  • 13:57:14

    CLARKBut the purposeful use of the number of examples is a very powerful strategy, and I agree that the number three is the largest number in literature because four, five, six, 100, 157, is just an inventory of elements of the world, whereas three, father, son, holy spirit, faith, hope, and love, is meant to embody the whole.

  • 13:57:39

    MCCLESKEYThank you for you call, Mike. Roy Peter Clark is the vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute. His most recent book is called "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times." We've run up on the end of the hour, but it's been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for being with us here today on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:57:55

    CLARKThank you for your hospitality. I appreciate it very much, and I wish I could -- I'm going to try to write a book now on how to speak short so I don't ramble on so much.

  • 13:58:05

    MCCLESKEYWell, you know, it's great to have you answer the questions of our listeners, and we're glad to get to talk to you here as well. Certainly I have been. Appreciate your being here. I'm Matt McClesky, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5 sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for listening.

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