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Photo Illustration by C. J. Burton for The Wall Street Journal

Photo Illustration by C. J. Burton for The Wall Street Journal

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal, ran an interesting article titled, The Age of Bite-Size Entertainment, with the subtitle, As the world goes mobile, get ready for more movies, books and music that can be snacked on in a single sitting.

In the opening paragraphs, the writer made these observations.

When soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” come back to life online later this month, episodes will run for 30 minutes, about half as long as the hourlong blocks that ran on broadcast television for most of the shows’ 40-year run. Why? Because they’re likely to be watched on the go.

Everyone is talking about the binge-viewing craze, but as people increasingly consume TV, movies, books and music on mobile devices, briefer is better. Shorter formats “are in-betweeners, the cream in the middle of the Oreo,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation.

Some of the biggest forces in entertainment are rushing out bite-size portions, not just to adapt to mobile technology but to test the appetite for heartier versions. If a serialized e-book catches fire, publishers will print the novel. A short film that goes viral on YouTube can lead to a feature film or television series. A well-received EP might prompt an album.

I have to admit before this article I had not given much consideration to whether this trend would impact the way we write books. Will we have to develop characters and plots more quickly?  Will the best writers be those who can write the best chapters and then string those together into a book, rather than outline a great book and then write the chapters to fit the outline? In a media and image driven culture, will dialogue become even more important when writing a book?

These are just some of the questions I have been thinking about in light of this article.  At this point, I don’t have any answers, but I wanted to know what you think. Use the comment section to offer your opinions and let me know if you have started writing differently to fit a shorter format.

Some of the biggest forces in entertainment are rushing out bite-size portions, not just to adapt to mobile technology but to test the appetite for heartier versions

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For many years of my career, I was a creative director at an ad agency and one thing I would tell the writers on my team is we do not work for a deli. We are not paid by the pound or volume we write. In fact, many times when they would bring me copy for an ad, I would ask them to go back and  take 30% of the words out of what they wrote and see if it hurt the communication. In almost every case, the communication was improved by using fewer words.  I think authors of books would find the same exercise helpful. Even though books are not bound by the time and page restrictions of advertising, writing with brevity and clarity can actually make the writing more powerful.

The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying.- Ben Yagoda

Writing for stories

Learning to write well takes work, but this book can help.

Apparently, I am not the only one who holds that point of view. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a column written by Ben Yagoda, English professor at the University of Delaware. He is the author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them,” to be published this week.

In the article, he uses an example from his classroom that illustrates the challenges many aspiring writers face today. Here’s excerpt.

My students can’t really handle writing “well.” At this point in their writing lives, that goal is too ambitious. I propose a more modest aim: not writing badly.

Take this sentence, adapted from a restaurant review by a student who was roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of ability: “Walking in the front door of the cafe, the vestiges of domesticity are everywhere regardless of a recent renovation.”

In just 19 words, it provides an impressive selection of current widespread writing woes: dangling modifier (“vestiges” didn’t walk in the front door), poor word choice (“vestiges,” “domesticity,” “regardless”), excessive prepositions (four in all) and an underappreciated but pervasive ill, a weak sentence-subject (“vestiges”).

The fact that someone would write such a sentence in an advanced college class is generally attributed to deficiencies in K-12 education. I don’t doubt that’s a valid criticism, but two other factors are equally important and a bit simpler to address

He goes on to offer some reasons why he thinks writing is a challenge today and one suggestion of what we can do about it. In his words,

Young people don’t read enough edited prose. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that, in order to become an outstanding practitioner in a discipline, you need to devote to it roughly 10,000 hours of practice. If you’ve done that much reading—not including text messages, emails and status updates—you will probably have absorbed a sufficient sense of punctuation, diction and style so as not to perpetrate a sentence such as the one above.

The second thing is that the author of that sentence tried to write “well.” Trying to create a complex sentence led to the dangling modifier. Trying to use fancy words led to misusing “vestiges,” “domesticity” and “regardless.”

This desire to “write well” is a big reason why so much writing fails to connect with and hold the writer.  Again in his words:

The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying. What was the author trying to express? The nub of it was that when you’re in the cafe, you notice a lot of homey stuff, and that this is surprising, or at least interesting enough to mention, because of the recent renovation. So the way to start is just by saying that as precisely as you can. Something like this: “The cafe was remodeled last year, but lots of homey touches are still evident.”

What about your writing? Once you have a draft, do you go back through and see if you can say what you want to say with fewer words or more precise words? It is how to not write bad.

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I think it is a daunting task to write a book on how to write well, yet there are volumes of such books published each year. Few become classics, like The Elements of Style, but there is a new book published today that I think is worth noting. The title is Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.  It is written by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and in the description of the book, the publisher makes this claim, …Good Prose—like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—is a succinct, authoritative, and entertaining arbiter of standards in contemporary writing, offering guidance for the professional writer and the beginner alike. This wise and useful book is the perfect companion for anyone who loves to read good books and longs to write one.Good Prose Cover

Time will tell if this volume holds up to that claim, but the sections I have read are quite good. Here are some of the statements I found particularly insightful. Some of these excerpts will also featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition.

  •  To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not —why else presume to write?—but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn’t generosity; it is realism.
  • Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting. What you “know” isn’t something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best of conversations with a friend—as if you and the reader do the discovering together.
  • Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don’t expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning.
  • Meek or bold, a good beginning achieves clarity. A sensible line threads through the prose; things follow one another with literal logic or with the logic of feeling. Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it’s a virtue always, and especially at the beginning of a piece of prose. Some writers seem to resist clarity, even to write confusingly on purpose. Not many would admit to this.
  • For many other writers, clarity simply falls victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or to bombard with information. It’s one thing for the reader to take pleasure in the writer’s achievements, another when the writer’s own pleasure is apparent. Skill, talent, inventiveness, all can become overbearing and intrusive. The image that calls attention to itself is often the image you can do without.
  •  Sometimes the writer who overloads an opening passage is simply afraid of boring the reader. A respectable anxiety, but nothing is more boring than confusion.
  • You can’t tell it all at once. A lot of the art of beginnings is deciding what to withhold until later, or never to say at all. Take one thing at a time. Prepare your readers, tell everything they need to know in order to read on, and tell no more.

For many other writers, clarity simply falls victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or to bombard with information

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