How to Write Short: When Less Is More

gQlAyAs Shakespeare once wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit.” And it’s also the soul of good writing. Even before the Twitter age, many of the best writers used words sparingly–keeping each sentence tight, efficient, but still full of meaning.

Take, for example, Ernest Hemingway, who practiced what’s called “muscular writing.” As the legend goes, over lunch, he challenged some literary friends to a contest: Write a short story in six words. On a napkin, he scratched out a winner: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Several years ago, that tale inspired Smith Magazine to launch a challenge to writers to tell their life stories in exactly six words.

Some of the best: 

  • Not quite what I was planning.
  • It all changed in an instant
  • You wouldn’t know, looking at me.
  • Birth, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence
  • Longed for him, got him. Sh*t
  • Everyone who loved me is dead
  • I can’t keep my own secrets
  • Living my dream, please send money
  • Fat, thin, fat, thin, fat, thin

As space and attention spans get shorter, I like to challenge my students to do the same. Try it yourself. And for more inspiration, watch this video.


6 Tips to Improve Writing–A New Year’s Plan

writeI don’t sweat small stuff. But I do have a few nit-picky things that really bother me when I see them in writing. And I don’t mean run-on sentences, misspellings, fragments and grammatical errors we scolds love to point out. You should know better.

I’m talking about the kind of under-the-radar tics that make writing slow, boring and torture to slog through. Obviously, I teach journalism, not technical or college essay writing–but still. The best writing is clean, crisp and active, no matter the setting or the audience. So I encourage students to write like journalists and avoid subtle errors that few notice but add up.

Now that the semester has ended and as the year comes to a close, pledge–or resolve, if you’re a New Year’s resolution kind of person–to clean up your writing. Try these six tricks that–I assure you–will make your writing better:

1. Shorten long sentences. Most people pile too much onto and into each sentence, as though another one isn’t right behind it. Keep your sentences short and declarative. Write like a radio or TV journalist: Even if a sentence is grammatically correct, if you can’t read it without taking a breath, break it up. (I even felt a little breathless reading that one!)

Not this: I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave,” starring the amazing actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is of Nigerian descent and also appeared in “Dirty Pretty Things,” a film that offered a searing look at organ harvesting in London.

Instead: I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave,” starring the amazing actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Of Nigerian descent, he also appeared in “Dirty Pretty Things.” That film offered a searing look at organ harvesting in London.

2. Get rid of passive voice. Of course, you know this, but sometimes it manages to slip in, often when you aren’t sure who did something. Instead, figure out who did what, which will make your sentence active and more precise.

Not this: Computers were stolen from the chemistry lab.

Instead: Thieves stole computers from the chemistry lab. Or: Someone stole computers from the chemistry lab.

3. Use fewer words. Some people add more words to sound smarter–or to make a paper, essay or article longer. Better to expand the thinking rather than just the word count. So look to trim the fat.

Not this: I am an individual who often has a hard time figuring out what it is I want to eventually do with my life.

Instead: I have a hard time figuring out what to do with my life.

4. Don’t repeat. First, avoid, “like I said before,” “to repeat,” or “once again.”  And try not to use the same words over and over…and over.

Not this: My plan is to first go to the library. Then I plan to study all night long. Planning my day helps me feel in control.

Instead: I plan to go to the library and study all night long. Organizing my day helps me feel in control.

5. Whenever you can, change all forms of the “to be” verb. I know, I know…everyone finds this difficult, even me. But push yourself. Use active verbs to keep your writing interesting.

Not this: Introduction to Journalism is my favorite course.

Instead: I love Introduction to Journalism. I adore Introduction to Journalism. Introduction to Journalism rocks.

Not this: The instructions were not applicable to me.

Instead: The instructions did not apply to me.

6. Finally, think like a sportswriter, and many of the subtle errors will fall away.

Not this: The Giants were the winners over the Colts by a substantial margin.

Instead: The Giants crushed the Colts.

Not this:  The Nets are coached by former Knick Jason Kidd.

Instead: Former Knick Jason Kidd coaches the nets.

Not this: Serena Williams is the year’s number-one player.

Instead: Serena Williams finished the year at number one.

Anything to add?