"Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words"
― William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
As writers and creators many questions cross our minds as we work on our ideas. One such pondering is when is short too short? When is enough, enough as a writer?
The Age of Skip Reading
Writing for an online audience presents its own challenges of course. With so much information bombarding us, audience habits have changed. Many of us have become less reader and more skip-reader.
We like online information packaged nicely for us so it's easy to absorb the takeaways. Lists and bullet points abound. Anything to get the message across simply.
Bite Sized Books are Not New
With the birth of the Kindle and ebook readers an abundance of super short reads has ensued. Many readers love these short books -- I know I do. Bite sized reads for the price of a coffee.
We may be forgiven for thinking short books are something new to support the electronic age. While the sheer volume of short form books has increased, short books themselves are certainly not new. In fact, some are very old. Some examples:
Tao Te Ching -- Lao Tzu
Although mystery will forever surround the actual date of composition and whether Lao Tzu was the work of one, or many, some of the texts date back to the 4th century (BC). What is very clear however is this masterpiece has stood the test of time. It's been translated into many languages and enjoyed by millions. It also happens to be a pretty short read although the wisdom in the pages give it unbelievable depth and lasting appeal.
The Art of War -- Sun Tzu
Another short (in word count) but deep and hard hitting book, Sun Tzu's classic on strategy in warfare and battle is still a modern day hit. The insight shared on the power of solid strategy, planning and preparation ensure this book has timeless lessons to teach that are broader than battlefields. It also happens to date back to 5th century (BC).
As Man Thinketh -- James Allen
Our shortest, and by far most recent, example still dates back to 1903.
Any book including the following passage is surely worth your time:
"A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts." -- James Allen (As Man Thinketh)
The Brilliance of Haiku
The Japanese poetic form of haiku is another splendid example of what can be achieved with a minimal amount of text. The masters of haiku can set up a whole scene, feeling or emotion all with the most carefully chosen words.
It's easy to overlook the genius at play with this form of poetry when it's done well. Consider this offering from Matsuo Basho:
Poverty's child -
he starts to grind the rice,
and gazes at the moon.
Why We Love a Quote
A great quote can be the ultimate in a short, but heavy hitting message. We all love a good quote for a reason, there is often timeless wisdom to be mined, in short form.
Less Can Be More
Personally, my aim as a writer is to cut fluff and write as simply as possible. My writing still contains bloat that should not be there when I reflect on pieces already written. That's part of my journey as a writer and I am committed to refining and getting better. I also know that trying to write for everyone will dilute my message. I can only do my best and hopefully an audience will find some value in what's written.
Less can be powerful in the right hands. Hemingway and Charles Bukowski at their best could say so much with such economy. Such descriptive writing that paints vivid pictures but is also pretty tightly packed.
It All Has a Place
Longer form writing of course has its place as do many styles of writing. The literary world would be a very bland landscape if we all expressed ourselves in the same way. Fortunately, that is never likely to be a problem.
There's room for short and concise writing, there's room for long and verbose, there's room for romantic, there's even room for aggressive and angst ridden. Essentially there's room for all styles of writing.
As writers we have to be true to who we are and the work. Trying to be something we are not will never come over. We have to be authentic. As a reader, we have the ability to choose what and how we consume.
Long live short form, long live long form, long live the written word.
Note: This is a reworked version of an earlier post I wrote here
Carl is a writer. He writes short books full of big ideas. He is also the proud owner of Frictionless Living which is focused on helping readers find and live their own version of a simpler, good life.