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Writing Small

The page is a collage and ongoing commentary on efficient, powerful communication. Alone to themselves, words don’t choose to wither. The right words perform naturally and beautifully — once you clear the stage of the cluttering props.

What’s Ahead:
Strunk and White | Shakespeare | Fitzgerald | Hemingway | Confucius | Bashō | Dickinson | Lewis | Darwin | Angelou | Kerouac | Stoppard | Emerson | King | Others

Strunk and White

The Elements of Style, the definitive writing guide by E.B. White (1899-1985) and William Strunk Jr. (1564-1616), has been called a “little book.” It has sold more than 10 million copies after its publication in 1959. It’s a great resource for learning how to write small.

“There’s a certain Zen quality to some of the book’s rules, like, ‘Be clear.’ There’s a lot being conveyed there in two words, in exactly how to do it. People will spend whole other books explaining that.”

— Barbara Wallraff (b. 1953)
senior editor, The Atlantic

“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 subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

“Since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one … Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope … Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

— William Strunk Jr. (1564-1616)
The Elements of Style

Many common expressions violate “vigorous writing.”

the question as to whether >>
whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that >>
no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes >>
used for fuel
he is a man who >>
he
in a hasty manner >>
hastily
this is a subject that >>
this subject
her story is a strange one >>
her story is strange
the reason why is that >>
because

Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a British poet, playwright and actor. He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language and the world’s top dramatist. He’s also known for producing crisp prose. He took a particular interest in two direct formats: monologue, soliloquy.

From the Greek monos (“single”) and legein (“to speak”), a monologue is a speech given to an audience.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.

— William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Julius Caesar

From the Latin solus (alone) and loqui (to speak), a soliloquy is a speech given to yourself. It’s thinking out loud, so the audience better understands your thoughts or conflict.

To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles. And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep.

— William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Hamlet

Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an American novelist and short story writer. He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. His works illustrate the Jazz Age and are known for their unfettered quality.

“Cut out all these exclamation points.
An exclamation point is like laughing
at your own joke.”

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.”

“Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.”

“Action is character.”

“You can stroke people with words.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Hemingway

The great American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was known for writing small.

“All you have to do is
write one true sentence.
Write the truest sentence that you know.”

“Write the best story that you can, and write it as straight as you can.”

“I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne.”

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

— Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Famously (and perhaps incorrectly), he was attributed with one of the most well-known bits of small writing.

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

The 21st century equivalent emerged through “six-word memoirs,” spearheaded by a contest created by Smith magazine co-founders Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser. They later partnered with Honest Tea to place the memoirs on the bottom of bottle caps.

Confucius

Confucius (551-479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, editor and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. He authored or edited many of the Chinese classic texts, including Five Classics.

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.”

“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

— Confucius (551-479 BC)

Bashō

Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) was a Zen monk and the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. He’s widely regarded as the greatest master of haiku, a very short form of Japanese poetry.

In the cicada’s cry, there’s no sign that can foretell how soon it must die.

Now that eyes of hawks in dusky night are darkened…chirping of the quails.

First white snow of fall — just enough to bend the leaves of faded daffodils.

April’s air stirs in willow-leaves, a butterfly floats and balances.

Now, the swinging bridge is quieted with creepers…like our tendrilled life.

— Matsuo Bashō (1644-94)

Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was an American poet and letter writer. She often wrote in terse verse.

I Hade No Time to Hate, Because

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.
Nor had I time to love, but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

— Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

Lewis

Clive Staples (a.k.a. C.S.) Lewis (1898-1963) was a British novelist and poet. He’s best known for Chronicles of Narnia. He liked writing with the ear (not the eye). He believed writers should imagine each sentence as if it was being read aloud.

“If it doesn’t sound nice, try again.”

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was delightful. Make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers — please will you do the job for me.”

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’ — otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

— C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809-82) was an English naturalist and geologist. He’s best known for contributions to the science of evolution, but is considered by many to also be a poet. He took clear, sharp notes in his journals.

“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working.”

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

“I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”

“A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections
— a mere heart of stone.”

— Charles Darwin (1809-82)

Angelou

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Many viewed her as “the black woman’s poet laureate.”

“Angelou moves exuberantly, vigorously to reinforce the rhythms of the lines, the tone of the words. Her singing and dancing and electrifying stage presence transcend the predictable words and phrases.”

— Lynn Z. Bloom (b. 1934)
African-American literature scholar

Phenomenal Woman

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

On the Pulse of the Morning

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space
to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree,
your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now
than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace
to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply —
very simply —
with hope,
good morning.

— Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Kerouac

Jack Kerouac (1922-69) was an American novelist and poet. He’s considered a literary iconoclast and a pioneer of the Beat Generation. He often referred to his style as “spontaneous prose.” The central feature in this writing was breath (borrowed from Jazz and from Buddhist meditation), which was seen is his elimination of the period and use of a long, connecting dash instead.

Maybe that’s what life is…a wink of the eye and winking stars.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

My witness is the empty sky.

All of life is a foreign country.

If you tell a true story, you can’t be wrong.

The beauty of things must be
that they end.

— Jack Kerouac (1922-69)

Stoppard

Sir Tom Stoppard (b. 1937) is a Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter. He co-wrote Shakespeare in Love, which earned him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He’s also won four Tony Awards. Many of the quotes attributed to him are sparse but poignant.

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”

“I think age is a very high price
to pay for maturity.”

“Every exit is an entry somewhere else.”

“Words… They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos.”

— Sir Tom Stoppard (b. 1937)

Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He is one of the more quotable writers in history, and a lover of all things small.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

“Words are also actions,
and actions are a kind of words.”

“Why need I volumes,
if one word suffices?”

“Life is our dictionary.”

“Trust your instinct to the end,
though you can render no reason.”

“Always do what you are afraid to do.”

“All life is an experiment.
The more experiments you make,
the better.”

“It is not length of life,
but depth of life.”

“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

“People only see
what they are prepared to see.”

“Every wall is a door.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82)

King

Stephen King (b. 1947) is an American author of contemporary horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction and fantasy. King has been awarded a National Medal of Arts from the United States National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to literature.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

“Description begins
in the writer’s imagination,
but should finish in the reader’s.”

“Write with the door closed,
rewrite with the door open.”

“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

“Words have weight.”

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”

“This is a short book because most books are filled with bullshit.”

— Stephen King (b. 1947)

Others

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”

— Yehuda Berg (b. 1972)
former co-director, Kabbalah Centre

“Never use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are, and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

— Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
former South African President and anti-apartheid revolutionary

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21). Words have the potential to produce positive or negative consequences (v. 20). They have the power to give life through encouragement and honesty or to crush and kill through lies and gossip. How can we be assured of producing good words that have a positive outcome? The only way is by diligently guarding our hearts. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (4:23 niv).”

— King Solomon (d. 931 BC)
former king of Israel and author (Book of Proverbs, Old Testament)

“A simple choice of word can make the difference between someone accepting or denying your message. You can have a very beautiful thing to say, but say it in the wrong words and it’s gone. Words have power. Words are power. Words could be your power.”

— Mohammed Qahtani (b. 1979)
world champion of public speaking

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

— Patrick Rothfuss (b. 1973)
American writer

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”

— Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-73), Persian Sunni Muslim poet

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

— Diane Setterfield (b. 1964)
British author

“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.”

— Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68)
American leader in the Civil Rights Movement

“A drop of ink may make a million think.”

— Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Anglo-Scottish poet and leading figure in the Romantic movement

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick — a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.”

— Neil Gaiman (b. 1960)
English author

“He was intrigued by the power of words, not the literary words that filled the books in the library but the sharp, staccato words that went into the writing of news stories. Words that went for the jugular. Active verbs that danced and raced on the page.”

— Robert Cormier (1925-2000)
American author and journalist

“Rightly or not, I believe a dull, inept style signals poverty or incompleteness of thought. I see the accuracy, scope, and quality of Darwin’s intellect directly expressed in the clarity, strength, and vitality of his writing — the beauty of it.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin (1925-2000)
American author

“The two words expressed volumes.”

— Agatha Christie (1890-1976)
English author and playwright

“In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervor, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel.”

— Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
American author

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