Thursday, 17 May 2012

Short writing: when less is more

Some tips on writing very, very short stories have been posted by David Gaffney in a Guardian blog. (Some readers' stories, inspired by these tips, are here.)

Most of these tips are applicable also to writing of learning materials, when we need to write concisely to suit the online medium or simply need a punchier, more motivational style than the academic norm.
  • "Start in the middle." Academic writing traditionally starts with the most general and abstract statement of the subject, which may make logical sense but is precisely the wrong thing to do for ease of understanding. Just as back-story is best introduced some way in, when you already care about the characters, rather than in chronological order, so generalities and abstractions make more sense once the particulars and concrete instances are established.
  • "Don't use too many characters." The teaching equivalent would be: you can't say everything that you know, so you're going to have to be selective.
  • "Make sure the ending isn't at the end." The rationale here is that once your reader reaches the end of the text, you've lost contact with them, so if you want to set them thinking about what your conclusion means and what its implications are, you need to do that before the end of the text.
  • "Sweat your title - make it work for a living." In academic writing, a title's main function is to describe and summarise the contents. In other kinds of writing, especially online, a title is often the basis on which a reader decides to read your piece or not. A description or summary is one of the ways to bring a reader in, but a good title can do more: it can pique the interest and set the tone, like the titles of a TV series.
  • "Make your last line ring like a bell." It's not only in fiction that we can aspire to writing final lines that "leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished."
  • "Write long, then go short." Sometimes writing longer than the word limit is the only way to begin, but after that you need to prune, prune, prune. I sometimes advise writers to pretend that they live in the days of telegrams, where you had to pay for every single word, and every word you could cut out of your message was money saved.
Recently an academic colleague thanked me for something I'd said to her three years ago when writing her first online course materials and facing a terrifyingly small word limit. What I'd advised her was to think in terms of writing haiku: a small number of words, getting the reader to do the maximum amount of work - active learning, active reading, at its most extreme.

There's an old example sometimes given to illustrate the nature of story. This:
The king died
is an event. This:
The kind died and the queen died
is two events in temporal sequence - still not a story. This:
The king died and the queen died of grief
is a story. Its power lies not in the words but in what the reader is inspired to bring to the text. If you can get the reader to do the bulk of the work, you don't need a lot of words to tell a story or provoke deep thought.

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