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tl;dr

“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:

1. Haiku

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.

Bam.

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?

3. Twitter

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.

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Tales of the Epic Move – Why We Hate San Francisco

I recently sent out three tweets concerning our arrival into San Francisco as we move across the country to our new home in Seattle. They were ambiguous and very angry, and for good measure!

First of all, our MapQuest directions to our hotel simply stopped once it dumped us into San Francisco. Our hotel was The Opal (a very nice, classy hotel) on 1050 Van Ness, but the directions ceased to exist when we arrived on Mission. After an hour of wandering around (and some Mormon cussing), we finally found it, no help to our map. Every time I tried to turn, San Francisco would have two one-way streets in the exact opposite direction I wanted to go in a row, when it normally alternates. Streets would suddenly split and lurch this way and that, leaving us making a wrong turn and going in the complete opposite direction – which would then take us more time to get back as we navigate the ridiculous streets of downtown San Francisco.

Dear San Francisco: You suck.

about 21 hours ago from txt

When we finally got to our hotel, they told us to go park in a garage they have a deal with. We arrived at the doors of the garage at 12:36 am; they apparently close at 12:30 am. We circled around and came back to the hotel. They told us to try another 24 hour garage – which was the same garage that closed at 12:30 am. We circled about again, and finally ended up parking at least five blocks away at valet parking at 1:45 am after driving around aimlessly for a parking garage that wasn’t closed.

My wife grew up all her life in Utah, and if you want to know anything about Utah, it’s that the nightlife usually shuts down after 10 pm. She had heard so many stories about the “big cities” that never slept – and indeed, it seemed that way on the outside in San Francisco. People were walking back and forth with friends, tons of restaurants were still open. In fact, everything was still open – except for parking garages. My wife was sorely disappointed. It seemed illogical – that when visiting San Francisco, you basically had a curfew if you drove here.

After parking, we walked the 5+ blocks back to The Opal, carrying nothing (we were just too tired and frustrated to be walking past a bunch of homeless people with giant sacks of epic lootz on our backs) and finally went up to our room. We showered, and went to bed well after 2 am, even though we came into the city at around 11:30 pm.

Eff you, San Francisco. Eff you. We will NEVER come back again. #epicmove

about 20 hours ago from txt

Also, when we got back to our valet parking, we got our car with our stuff back – almost. My iPod Shuffle was missing. Thanks, San Francisco.

The next morning while driving out, we passed over the bay and I realized that a lot of different things culminated into the horrible night we suffered. In the end, the whole thing was almost comically funny, if it hadn’t happened to me just the night before. The experience would certainly work as fodder for future stories and writing, and it was really a bunch of peoples’ faults – MapQuest for preventing us in getting to our hotel in time, the parking garages of San Francisco for deciding to close relatively early in the night, the urban planners of San Francisco for designing streets while smashed. Just alone, they would act as minor inconveniences, but when combined, they made me so angry that when a grungy old man on a bike ran a red light just as I was about to cross the intersection, I was very seriously tempted to accelerate and hit him.

Goodbye, San Francisco. You made life wretchedly hard for us, but hopefully no hard feelings. #epicmove

about 12 hours ago from txt

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Never gonna give him up (for now)

The riproll? Srsly, internets? Are you that bored?

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The future of writing

In my Introduction to Journalism class, back when I thought my calling in life was to help protect democracy through freedom of the press, my teacher told us bluntly that print journalism is a dying business.

However, he pointed out the fact that journalists will never go away. At the moment, the Internet (the biggest culprit squeezing the life out of the newspaper industry) basically steals articles for free from newspapers. Someday, when all the newspapers are dead, Google and Yahoo! and other news aggregate websites will need to find the journalists who were recently laid off. Though employers may change, the craft will never die as long as humanity thirsts for the latest news.

I’ve been thinking much about the future of writing. One of my old Scoutmasters growing up was a ghostwriter. One of my college friends is a ghost blogger. And, as I was checking my Twitter feeds, will the future soon yield the ghost Twitterer?

Twitter is a huge internet phenomenon, equal to Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. It’s helped break news stories as well as spread panicky rumors faster than ever before. But there is still the perception that Twitter is just getting a hundred inane text messages a day on your cellphone about what your friends ate for lunch. For some people, that’s exactly what Twitter is, but for companies, they realize this is a huge business opportunity. Many companies now have their own Twitter feeds and will send product information, advertisements and general information right to people’s cellphones. It’s more efficient than canvassing a demographic, because those who are the most likely to act on your information are willingly signing up for it. They are literally asking you to spam their cellphone’s text message inbox.

Whenever I mention the idea of the professional Tweeter, however, a lot of people scoff. Will companies really have to hire professional Tweeters to write their own tweets? How hard is it for people to convey information in 140 characters? The answer is very.

One of the most difficult aspects of poetry is fitting to the form. Don’t believe it? Try writing a traditional petrarchian sonnet, “which falls into two parts: an octave of eight lines and sestet of six. The octave rhyme pattern is abba abba (two sets of four lines); the sestet’s lines are more variable: cde cde; or ced ced; or cd cd cd” (DiYanni, 746). Now make it actually sound good

It’s the same thing with a commercial Twitter. You have 140 characters. That’s your form. Now write an advertisement about a Samsung HDTV. What do you write about in such a confining form? Do you write about the size of the screen? The resolution? The price? Which ones do you specifically select and sift until your 140 character advertisement is the most efficient but also the most effective writing to convey the right information and the right motivation?

Chances are, if asked to, the average person could not distill a lot of information into 140 words. That’s where the professional comes in. Technical writers are trained to explain information simply and efficiently. Marketers are trained to write statements that have a powerful rhetoric to motivate customers to the company’s advantage. Combine the two together and add a dash of a poet’s spirit, and you have the professional commercial Tweeter.

Is it really necessary to distill everything about our world into 140 character segments? Could this be a bad thing? Maybe. However, writing styles have always changed, from Dickens’ flowery language to Hemmingway’s more direct, sparse diction, and commercial writing was never meant to be literature anyway. Instead, our ability to disseminate and process information seems to become more and more efficient as time goes on. The internet has given the average consumer an edge in information, and as the old saying goes, knowing is half the battle. Twitter has given corporations and companies a direct conduit to the consumer, but applications like Twitter has also given a direct conduit between consumers themselves. Just as fast as companies can produce 140 character advertisements, so can one piece of information or scandal bring down the company as it flashes across the Twitter network.

And as far as our attention spans go, Harry Potter and Twilight have broken the golden rule that our generation hates to read big books. Writing (and subsequently, reading) will never truly go away, no matter how much the world may change.

Moral of the Story: The future of writing – the professional Tweeter. I called it first.

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