WordCount – Freelancing in the Digital Age

By Michelle Vranizan Rafter

A Few Words on Writing Short

with 11 comments

There are no short cuts to writing short.

It’s hard. It takes practice. Even Mark Twain thought so, as he famously said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

There are, however, a few good reasons to try:

  • FOB – A magazine’s “front of the book” departments are the first place freelance writers are advised to pitch at a publication they’ve never worked with before. FOB stories are generally short.
  • Story packagesUSA Today popularized this non-linear storytelling technique of breaking information into multiple parts consisting of a short main story, sidebars and graphics. The concept was adopted by papers everywhere and has risen to new heights online.
  • The Web – Stories written for the Web are shorter to match online readers’ short attention spans. Writers need to write accordingly.
  • Blogs – Some of the best blogs have pithy, short posts that pack a lot into a small space. A good example is viral marketing guru Seth Goldin’s blog post on how to drive traffic to your blog. It’s one giant, hilarious list, clocking in at 575 words. Bonus: master the short blog post and it’ll help your other writing (see above).

Writers take different approaches to writing short. When I posed the question “How do you write short?” on the Writing and Editing section of the LinkedIn Answer board last week, more than 50 writers weighed in. The advice was all over the map. It basically boiled down to a few approaches:

  • The Haiku Method – Choose words carefully and use as few as possible.
  • The Diarrhea Method – Pour it all out then trim judiciously.
  • The Newshound Method – Follow the classic inverted pyramid structure, covering who, what, where, when, why and how, in descending order of importance until you run out of space.
  • The Lists Method – Use lists, bullets and other devices to summarize material. This is a favorite of Web editors and writers because the result is dense, meaty stories that cover a lot of ground in a short time.

I write a lot of 500-word stories and I’ve come up with my own tricks for writing short.

Plan. Start thinking about a story’s length and structure when you craft a query letter or get an assignment. If you’ve got an idea of what material you need and how you’ll present it, you can structure interviews and research accordingly, and in the process, eliminate unnecessary work.

Structure. Tailor a story’s structure to its size. Save the three-paragraph anecdotal opening for another time. For a short story you need a snappy lead, a nut graph up high to tell readers what it’s about and why they should care, all the relevant details and a short conclusion.

Edit yourself. When you’re finished, go over a story once, twice, three times to cut excess baggage. Read it out loud to spot clumsy passages that could be more succinct. When in doubt, leave it out.

Use a word counter.

And that’s exactly 500 words on writing short.

Written by Michelle Rafter

March 14, 2008 at 5:13 am

11 Responses

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  1. Wow, Michelle–talk about practicing what you preach. Way to condense a broad spectrum of results into one efficient article!

    AnnaLisa Michalski

    March 14, 2008 at 6:02 am

  2. […] the result is dense, meaty stories that cover a lot of ground in a short time…. source: A Few Words on Writing Short, WordCount/by Michelle Vranizan […]

  3. There’s no question that different media require different copy. Sitting down with a long article in a magazine is a relaxing and involving event. For the web, getting the job done in the least space possible is the ticket. You’ve given professional and amateur writers a capsule summary of the most popular approaches to telling the full story in small space. Good work!

    Robert Dolezal

    March 16, 2008 at 5:36 am

  4. This is a great post, Michelle. Are you writing for The Writer. You should submit a version of this as a query. It could totally be expanded into a full feature. And I’d love to learn others ideas/anecdotes on the topic.

    Thanks for sharing your quick tips on how to write short.

    All my best,
    Jackie Dishner

    Jackie Dishner

    March 18, 2008 at 11:39 am

  5. […] 9. The shorter the better. […]

  6. […] writers on LinkedIn what their secrets were to writing short, and used the answers as the basis for this post on WordCount. Paula liked what I’d written so much she asked if she could turn it into a […]

  7. […] Summarize. Instead of whole paragraphs, use bullets, lists or other space saving devices to pack more punch into your prose without adding to the […]

  8. […] A few words about writing short – 500 words is the new 1,000. […]

  9. […] 2. Write short – If you’re blogging for yourself, you can decide how much or little to include in a single blog post. Some days you might feel like writing 500 or 1,000 words reacting to a news event or on a subject that’s close to your heart. Other days, you may just want to share a news story or blog post someone else has written with your readers, so your post could consist of a link to the original with a paragraph or two of explanation or commentary. Here are some other suggestions for writing short. […]

  10. […] 7. Leave stuff out. In 2007 British documentary on Rowling that re-aired earlier this month when movie version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opened, the author shares about details of her characters that never made it into the books, including back stories and what happens in their lives after the books ends.  The tidbits either didn’t fit into the plot or weren’t interesting enough to be included (although fans live for this kind of stuff). The takeaway: Pick the most telling details, the juiciest quotes, the most spot-on examples to tell your story and leave the rest out, especially if – unlike Rowling – you’re writing to a specific word count. […]

  11. […] Summarize. Instead of whole paragraphs, use bullets, lists or other space saving devices to pack more punch into your prose without adding to the […]

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