“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”
– William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style
As a child, I always thought I’d end up writing the next long, epic fantasy that had several volumes of hundreds of pages each. Instead, I’m moving more into business and technical writing, focusing on brevity and simplicity. I remember the first time in my life when I realized that I would probably never finish that epic novel, mostly because I was in love with the idea of being a novel writer, not necessarily in novel writing. It was both crushing and liberating — crushing in that one more childhood dream (no matter how naive or flippant) had found its way to the waste bin, but liberating because as I grew older, I started to hate most epic fantasy novels. Many times, it all boiled down to too long; didn’t read. Such superfluous writing! I didn’t have time. This isn’t to say that I hate all long stories; Avatar: The Last Airbender’s three seasons held me enraptured the whole way (I watched the entire third season in a 24 hour period). However, in the fantasy genre, unnecessarily wordy writing (possibly inspired by our venerable Tolkien?) has become the norm, rather than the shunned.
Along with this shift in interest, I’ve become fascinated with short writing formats. Concise writing is poetic writing, in a very literal sense. The poet, when composing verses, must encapsulate complex emotions and ideas into as little words as possible; each one must have maximum impact. Nowadays, most peoples’ encounter with contemporary poetry is the free verse, which can often lead to indulgence in grotesquely long-winded, terribly boring poetry. I’ve always been more partial to the restrictive formats of poetry. When you create boundaries, a lot of inspiration can flourish within them. It’s good to break out once and a while, but it’s also good to put up artificial restrictions and see what kind of inspiration blooms, often out of necessity. My friend, Quinton, is a singer-songwriter, and we disagree on many aspects of poetry, but one thing we can agree on is that restrictions (for him, restrictions in the very construct of his music) can often produce the most amazing results.
Every author should experiment in restrictive formats the require creative writing to make do with those boundaries. Three formats especially capture my interest:
The most well-known haiku format in the states is the 5/7/5 format, or five syllables on the first line, seven on the second, and five on the third. Many haikus I’ve encountered can be witty, pithy, and incredibly emotional. The very strict format forces the poet to select with care each word they decide on.
One father’s day, I wrote a set of seven haikus about my dad. I could have written a long-winded post about him instead (I could fill volumes about my father, who is an incredibly interesting man), but the format of the haiku forced me to capture how I felt about him. For example, one night, my father announced to the family that he would try to yell less at us children because he saw how I (the oldest) was yelling at my younger siblings. Ashamed to have passed down that habit, he resolved to do better and told our family to keep himself accountable. I wrote this haiku accordingly:
“I stopped yelling when
I saw you yell at siblings.”
I still remember.
You may disagree, but I think the haiku has more impact.
2. Six word memoirs
There’s this trend that floated around for a while called the six word memoir. Rumor has it that it was inspired by a story about Hemmingway, known for his short writing style. An editor challenged him to write a story in six words. Hemmingway replied with this story:
For sale: baby’s shoes. Never used.
In memory of this story, some people started writing their memoirs in six words. Mine is Born Mormon, intellectually Jewish, emotionally Zen. Others I waffled on were Subject to change in five years and Total geek; got married; still geeky. Not only is this a good writing exercise, but it’s a great life exercise, too. What would your six word memoir be? How do you distill your life’s experience (or for the younger, trajectory) in six words? What’s most important to you?
That’s what writing is about. How do you distill such complex ideas into a communicable format?
Twitter, a writing tool? Twitter is single-handedly destroying internet literacy, amirite? Bear with me here, people.
Twitter is an excellent writing format. 140 characters on its own is some kind of poetry, and people can write some incredibly hilarious and incredibly poignant things on it. Again, Twitter (which, for a while, was called micro-blogging — maybe they still do?) forces the writer to distill their thought into 140 characters. Sometimes it spills over into a second or even third tweet, but those should be rare and considered rude if done too often. And because of that, one day I found myself in a coffee shop, soaking wet because of rain and trapped until the weather improved. I began to compose stories inspired by watching those around me and began sending up tweets.
He stared at the rain, spinning the phone in his hand. He didn’t know what he was waiting for; no one was coming.
He watched her read while sipping coffee, then left. I would have talked to you, she thought as she watched him go.
She made the coffee gracefully, twirling behind the counter with an easy smile and a sense of pride. Nobody noticed.
“I love you,” he said at the end of his phone call. “Oh, sorry. Habit. I didn’t mean it.” He sighed, then hung up.
She wondered if the cold, saggy jeans clinging to her accentuated her calves. It was the only part of her he liked.
He walks through the rain confidently without a jacket, convinced that wearing the cowboy hat makes him impervious.
With that beard and hair, he looked just like Marx. he dares not tell anyone that he once was a banker and loved it.
Two coffees, one person. “This was her favorite flavor,” his face says.
“Escape your landlocked life!” the kayak advert screams. “Maybe then she won’t think you’re boring and come back.”
She wears her headphones and stares at the screen as if to say, I am not friends with the freaks sitting around me.
“Well,” he pleaded, “Usually when it’s not raining the view is beautiful, really!” She looked away, unimpressed.
Wearing a sharp white blouse and pencil skirt, we think she is a lawyer. She is secretly writing a romance novel.
He swears at the rain. “No wizards tonight,” he growls. We all stare, wondering what he means. he doesn’t care.
I ended up happily spending an hour and a half doing this until the rain let up.
There’s something interesting about trying to cram a story into 140 characters. Like Hemmingway’s six words, you need to really understand what you’re trying to say, and say it well. Say it succinctly. Say it with purpose. I remember helping a friend with a paper; he had difficulty changing passive voice into active voice. When we were finished, he mentioned how much more direct his writing voice was now. Too often we’re taught to write as if we have no real confidence in our opinion or message. We vacillate and oscillate and all kinds of other Latin verbs. So practice writing in short formats. It will force you to really think about what you want to say, and how to say it clearly.
Maybe I should have tried to distill this all into a tweet.