Morris: A Writer’s Discipline
by Leo Morris
In 1657 the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote a letter in which he included the following apology (translated from the French): “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
I suspect that the Indiana Policy Review’s Craig Ladwig has that quote framed and hanging on a wall somewhere. When he recruited me to write these pieces, he said one of the cruelest things I have ever heard: “As a guideline, make them about 600 words each.”
This is my 44th column, and I don’t think I’ve hit anywhere near 600 words yet. Most of them drift upward to 800 words and more, and I consider it a good job when one gets close to 700.
It’s not because I have so many wise things to say that I just have to cram them all in. It’s because I often lack the time and sometimes, I fear, the talent to pare down my words to the essentials.
And thus make them more memorable, if not more profound.
I was forced this contemplate this personal shortcoming on reading a compelling article called “21 Words” by fantasy author Terry R. Lacy. In it, he recounted an exercise he was given in grad school to imagine he had exactly 21 words – not 20, not 22, but 21 exactly – to convince the listener that he had an idea worth considering.
He relates the exercise to talk about writing a good book blurb, that hook that makes readers want to buy this one tome rather than the tens of thousands of other titles published each year. If the blurb isn’t compelling enough quickly enough, readers will move on to the next blurb and the sale will be lost.
It’s a variation of the “elevator pitch” in which you imagine you have just that short elevator ride to grab the listeners’ attention, make them understand your concept and buy into it. It’s a skill useful for everything from selling insurance to delivering a pickup line in a crowded bar.
Conciseness should be second nature to me, since I spent a career in pre-digital journalism, where space was severely limited and words therefore precious. Charles Dickens’ novels were epic because he wrote them as serials, originally being committed to 20 parts of 32 pages each. Ernest Hemingway was pithy because he learned his craft writing for newspapers.
But reminders are helpful, and we can all benefit from exercising our skills. Writers should try the 21-word drill the next time they’re in an interminable argument over something political or otherwise stupid, and get the other combatants to agree to the same thing. Why is global warming real (or inconsequential)? 21 words exactly. How should we handle illegal immigration? 21 words. Describe Donald Trump’s greatness or despicableness. 21 words.
They also should occasionally read a short story collection, study the efforts of poets who had to say it all in a 14-line sonnet, and try to appreciate the elegant simplicity of a haiku’s 17 syllables.
I would recommend against tweeting a lot as practice. With its enforced limits (first 140 characters, then bumped to 280), you’d think that Twitter would have made us all pithy, profound philosophers. It has turned us instead into a nation of nasty, preening snots. Brevity, as Shakespeare noted, might be the soul of wit, but it is no guarantor.
My writing program, by the way, has a nifty little word counter, which will allow me this one time to reach 600 words, not one word more nor one word less.
Which I have just done.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.