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Roy Peter Clark on Writing Short

Poynter Senior Scholar and prolific author Roy Peter Clark closed out the day’s events with a lively session on how to write succinctly. Using a combination of piano playing, anecdotes, famous examples and written exercises, Clark encouraged attendees to be more thoughtful about the way in which they craft sentences—the mere order of words in a sentence can have a profound impact, he explained.

Clark, whose most recently published book is titled How to Write Short, opened with an anecdote about the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” He listed off seven famous texts that have endured the test of time—The Hippocratic Oath, the 23rd Psalm in the Old Testament, the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament, Shakespearian sonnets, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the last paragraph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“You’re not going to believe this, but if you take all the words in those seven documents and add them up, they will add up to 996 words,” Clark noted.

The digital age has created seemingly endless amounts of space to write and there is more long-form writing than ever before, but Clark explained that today’s prose no longer needs to be tight and is instead inflated.

“Virtually all texts can be reduced by 20 percent to the benefit of the writer and reader” Clark said. “I try to demonstrate that—I’ll take famous text or something I’ve written myself and whittle it down to 100 words, then 60, 40 words, then make it a tweet.”

Clark described an eight-step writing model that works cyclically—sniff, idea, collect, focus, select, order, draft, and revise. “The basic concept is before we know there’s a story, there’s something going on but we’re not exactly sure what,” he said. “It then becomes an idea, something that’s pitchable. We don’t just write it, we collect information and find a focus. Out of everything we’ve collected we select our best material and along the way a shape emerges. Sit down and begin writing and then revise it, and so on.”

Throughout his career, Clark said he determined that finding the focus is the most important step in the cycle. “The focus is a door and a sword,” Clark explained. “It’s a door in that it allows you to select the best information that you’ve collected. That’s why it’s a knife as well—you use it to introduce the most helpful material, and use it to cut out material that doesn’t fit.”

Clark invited attendees to consider the importance of ordering words for emphasis. He wrote out a six-word sentence from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” The phrase served as a mentor text to him, and he was determined to figure out why Shakespeare had ordered it in such a way—“I would have written ‘The Queen is dead, my lord,’” Clark noted.

Attendees took turns guessing why the phrase packed such a punch, and Clark agreed that the presence of two commas built up a feeling of suspense and was the only phrasing that has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

According to the theory of language, Clark explained, the word right before the period at the end of a sentence gets special attention—“whether we want it to or not,” he noted. All other possible orders of Shakespeare’s phrase do not carry as much weight—only in the original version is the most important word, “dead,” at the end of the sentence.

“What Shakespeare has taught me, I do in text messages, in tweets and Facebook updates,” Clark said. “I’m constantly finding really cool and interesting words, data and information hiding. I take it out of hiding and place it at the end of a sentence. This matters in the most serious poetry and the most frivolous text message. It’s not just finding the best words, it’s finding the best order for the best words, so that the best words stand out.”

Clark encouraged attendees to pay attention to the word order in all genres of media, from headlines to Donald Trump’s tweets, and apply critical thinking to understand how the word order affects the impact.

“Your goal in news judgment is to find the things most interesting and important,” Clark said. “But in the revealing of that interestingness and importance to readers, the best strategy you have is emphatic word order.”

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