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How to write a good story in 800 words or less

Originally published: October 6, 2003

Editor’s note: Poynter announced that the newly renamed 2024 Poynter Journalism Prizes will feature a category honoring longtime writing coach Roy Peter Clark and recognizing compelling short writing under 800 words. It seems fitting then to revisit an essay Clark wrote 20 years ago about powerful short-form writing.

Most of the good stories we tell can be told in 800 words or less. Let me try one. It involves my father, Ted Clark, who used to have the annoying habit of sucking on ice cubes, which he was doing one day, sitting in his recliner in front of the television set. My mother was in the basement doing the laundry, when she heard a great thump above her. She rushed upstairs and found my father unconscious on the bathroom floor. She called 911 and the paramedics arrived, but not before my father had recovered, seemingly unharmed. It turned out that an ice cube had lodged in his windpipe, cutting off his air supply, knocking him out as he staggered toward the bathroom. Fortunately, his body heat melted the ice cube, restoring the flow of oxygen, and saving his life. He’s never sucked on an ice cube again.

It took me 128 words to tell that story. If I measure the story another way, by Approximate Reading Time (ART), I can say that the story is about 42 seconds long. I think any discussion of story length should measure a story not just by the number of words, but how long it takes the average person to read it.

I found this gem in a collection of radio reports from the great Edward R. Murrow of CBS News. The date is April 12, 1951. It involves two controversial American icons and a bit of technological trivia. Here’s the whole report:

“Western Union has delivered about 60,000 telegrams to Congress and the White House, most of them in favor of General MacArthur. Republican Senator McCarthy, of Wisconsin, says, ‘It was a victory for Communism and shows the midnight power of bourbon and Benedictine.’ In Los Angeles, a man smashed a radio over his wife’s head in the course of an argument about MacArthur’s removal. Reports say it was a table model.”

A table model, rather than a console! In other words, the man was kind enough not to strike his wife with a big piece of furniture. This report of 71 words can be read aloud in about 25 seconds. My rough calculations reveal that it takes the average person about 33 seconds to read 100 words.

Let’s round that off to 200 words per minute. That means that my new serial narrative, which is about 15,000 words long, would take a reader about 75 minutes to read. That ART is good to know as I consider with my editors whether to publish it as a special section, in four daily parts, or over a greater number of days. Maybe each of my chapters can be very short, say 800 words or less, requiring only four minutes of my reader’s time.

If you want to write shorter, or if your editor wants you to, I’ve got some tips that I’ve gathered from the best wordsmiths in the business. You can write short without sacrificing your news values or your literary sensibilities. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you can’t do it alone. Well, maybe that’s also good news.

  1. Find models of short writing from every genre and medium. Let the writers of those works become your teachers.

Start off with three story collections – all published by Norton. The first is called “Radios: Short Takes on Life and Culture,” by the late writing professor of Florida State University, Jerome Stern. These are printed versions of public radio commentaries. A typical one is about 350 words. Then check out “In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction,” edited by Judith Kitchen & Mary Paumier Jones. For some real fun, enjoy Jerome Stern’s edition of “Micro Fiction.” Among the shortest stories is this 53-word nugget by Amy Hempel:

“She swallowed Gore Vidal. Then she swallowed Donald Trump. She took a blue capsule and a gold spansule — a B-complex and an E — and put them on the tablecloth a few inches apart. She pointed the one at the other. ‘Martha Stewart,” she said, ‘meet Oprah Winfrey.’ She swallowed them both without water.”

  1. Know from the beginning whether you’re writing a sonnet or an epic.

One of my favorite sonnets begins Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

That’s 14 lines, 106 words. Never was there a summary of complex news more carefully crafted or more beautifully expressed. Perhaps a reporter for the London Globe would have written it this way:

“A pair of teenaged lovers died Thursday, the result of a failed plot to bring their warring families together. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, both of Verona, were pronounced dead from what appeared to be self-inflicted dagger wounds. ‘This is the most woeful story I’ve ever heard,’ said Escalus, Prince of Verona and chief law enforcement officer. ‘I hope the families learn from this terrible tragedy.’ “

In his sonnet lead, Shakespeare includes the basic elements of news telling, usually referred to as the Five W’s and H. We know the Who: a pair of unlucky lovers; the What: they took their lives; the Where: in fair Verona; the When: right now; the Why: an ancient feud. Of course, the How is about to be experienced: the “two hours’ traffic of our stage,” the narrative of the play.

Shakespeare wrote short poems and long plays. Like other writers, he was guided by knowing from the beginning the technical limits of his genre. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the 5 W’s or the form of writing called the inverted pyramid. Just remember to keep it short.

  1. Thaw out the 5 W’s and H.

This advice comes from editor Rick Zahler of The Seattle Times. The traditional version of the 5W’s freezes those story elements into informational ice cubes. If you thaw them out, the narrative begins to flow. Who becomes Character. What becomes Action. Where becomes Setting. When becomes Chronology. Why becomes Motive. How becomes Narrative.

One of the great reporters of his day was Meyer Berger of The New York Times. He won a Pulitzer in the late 1940s for his narrative reconstruction of a multiple shooting. He wrote it on deadline and at great length. But he also was the master of the short human interest feature. Just before his death in 1959, he wrote a story, about 1,200 words on an old, poor, blind man who was once a classical musician. Then he wrote a sequel:

“Eight violins were offered the other day to Laurence Stroetz, the 82-year-old, cataract-blinded violinist who was taken to St. Clare’s Hospital in East Seventy-first Street from a Bowery flophouse. The offers came from men and women who had read that though he had once played with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he had been without a violin for more than 30 years.

The first instrument to reach the hospital was a gift from the Lighthouse, the institution for the sightless. It was delivered by a blind man. A nun took it to the octogenarian.

He played it a while, tenderly and softly, then gave it back. He said: ‘This is a fine old violin. Tell the owner to take good care of it.’ The white-clad nun said: ‘It is your violin, Mr. Stroetz. It is a gift.’ The old man bent his head over it. He wept.”

In 145 words, Berger turns a traditional Who (“the 82-year-old, cataract blinded violinist”) into a real character, brimming with human emotions.

  1. Remember the basics of storytelling.

Tom Wolfe argued that the tools of fiction writing could be adapted for nonfiction, as long as the reporting was deep and careful. Those tools include setting scenes, using dialogue, drawing details that define character, and revealing the world through various points of view. Although we associate these tools with long forms of journalism, such as the narrative reconstruction of events, they can work in short forms as well. Notice the miniature scene created by Meyer Berger above. A nun enters the room with the violin. He plays. She engages in dialogue with the blind man. He weeps.

  1. Turn the pyramid right side up. Or use the hourglass.

We think of the inverted pyramid as one of the Great Wonders of the newspaper writing world, and it is; but alternative forms of news narrative have always co-existed with it. George C. Bastian wrote this in a 1923 textbook on editing:

“Two Important Types of Narratives — Most news stories, and indeed most news paragraphs, begin with their climax, or most important and most newsy feature, and then proceed to detail and amplify. Some, however, notably those resembling the short story form of writing, begin with details and reserve their climax until the last. These two types of stories may be compared to two triangles, one resting on its base and the other on a point.”

Professor Bastian might have added a third form in which the two triangles are joined at their points, forming a structure that looks like an hourglass. Many stories lend themselves to an informational beginning, with the key facts stacked in the order of importance. But the story can then take a turn (“Police and witnesses gave the following account of what happened.”) with the bottom of the story rendering a chronological version of events.

  1. Experiment with the forms of short writing that already exist: the headline, the tease, the photo caption, the brief, the “brite,” the notes column.

There is no more underdeveloped writing form in American journalism than the photo caption or cutline. Here Jeffrey Page of The Record in New Jersey shows the storytelling potential of the form. Frank Sinatra has just died, so imagine a one-column photo of him. It shows Sinatra from the waist up. He’s wearing a tux with a black bow tie. He’s got a mike in his hand. He’s obviously singing. Caption:

“If you saw a man in a tux and black bow tie swagger on stage like an elegant pirate, and if you had been told he would spend an hour singing Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, and if when he opened his mouth you heard a little of your life in his voice, and if you saw his body arch back on the high notes (the ones he insisted you hear and feel and live with him), and if his swing numbers made you want to bounce and be happy and be young and be carefree, and if when he sang ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ and got to the line about a woman’s wearing the same shabby dress it made you profoundly sad, and if years later you felt that his death made you a little less alive, you must have been watching this man who started as a saloon singer in Hoboken and went on to become the very definition of American popular music.”

How can you write a 198-word caption without using the dead man’s name? Jeffrey Page explains: “I know, I know, it violates every damned rule. Screw it. They keep telling us to take chances, right? So I did. … If you’re a U.S. paper, and especially if you happen to be in New Jersey, you don’t have to tell people that they’re looking at a picture of Sinatra and not Mother Teresa.”

  1. Think of chapters, segments, vignettes, slices of life.

Even a very long work, such as the Bible, can be divided into books, chapters, and verses. Sometimes little drips of writing can turn into puddles, into streams, into rivers. But the process can work the other way around. Consider this paragraph from an essay titled “Proofs,” by Richard Rodriguez:

“You stand around. You smoke. You spit. You are wearing your two shirts, two pants, two underpants. Jesus says, if they chase you throw that bag down. Your plastic bag is your mama, all you have left; the yellow cheese she wrapped has formed a translucent rind; the laminated scapular of the Sacred Heart nestles flame in its cleft. Put it in your pocket. The last hour of Mexico is twilight, the shuffling of feet. A fog is beginning to cover the ground. Jesus says they are able to see in the dark. They have X-rays and helicopters and searchlights. Jesus says wait, just wait, till he says. You can feel the hand of Jesus clamp your shoulder, fingers cold as ice. Venga, corre. You run. All the rest happens without words. Your feet are tearing dry grass, your heart is lashed like a mare. You trip, you fall. You are now in the United States of America. You are a boy from a Mexican village. You have come into the country on your knees with your head down. You are a man.”

Although this is only one of 11 such vignettes in the piece, it can stand on its own as a brilliant 150-word essay on the tensions between freedom, opportunity, and servitude.

  1. Focus, focus, focus.

This is the central act of the writing craft. Ultimately, we focus all other parts of the process. We focus the idea or assignment. We focus the reporting. We focus the lead. We select to support the focus. The focus is the cornerstone for building a structure. We revise to eliminate that which fails to support the focus.

Good questions helps us find the focus and keep the story short. What is this story about? What do I want my reader to learn? What’s the heart or nut of the story? What is the news? What is the point? What is the theme? What’s the most important question answered by the story? Can I describe story in a single paragraph? A sentence? Six words? Three words?

A humorous radio commentary by the late Jerome Stern makes fun of the way famous athletes and celebrities talk about themselves in the third person: “Meryl Streep,’ says Meryl Streep, “resents her loss of privacy.” After a wicked inventory of such atrocities, Stern suggests that common folks should take up the habit: “We owe this to ourselves. We’re as good, we’re as complicated, we’re as important. These celebrities, they have fame, fortune – should they have all the proper nouns, too? / In naming ourselves we create ourselves, we are the stars of our own sweet universe.”

All 350 words of his essay lead to that one, final exquisite point.

  1. Turn lumps of coal into little diamonds. Accept the challenge of transforming a routine assignment into something special: an obit, a spelling bee, a high school graduation, daylight savings time, the new phone book.

Famous for his long narratives, Ken Fuson was assigned to do a quick hit on the first day of spring. This piece appeared the next morning on the front page of The Des Moines Register:

“Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March: By washing the car and scooping the loop and taking a walk; by daydreaming in school and playing hooky at work and shutting off the furnace at home; by skate-boarding and flying kites and digging through closets for baseball gloves; by riding that new bike you got for Christmas and drawing hopscotch boxes in chalk on the sidewalk and not caring if the kids lost their mittens again; by looking for robins and noticing swimsuits on department store mannequins and shooting hoops in the park; by sticking the ice scraper in the trunk and the antifreeze in the garage and leaving the car parked outside overnight; by cleaning the barbecue and stuffing the parka in storage and just standing outside and letting that friendly sun kiss your face; by wondering where you’re going to go on summer vacation and getting reacquainted with neighbors on the front porch and telling the boys that yes! yes! they can run outside and play without a jacket; by holding hands with a lover and jogging in shorts and picking up the extra branches in the yard; by eating an ice cream cone outside and (if you’re a farmer or gardener) feeling that first twinge that says it’s time to plant and (if you’re a high school senior) feeling that first twinge that says it’s time to leave; by wondering if in all of history there has ever been a day so glorious and concluding that there hasn’t and being afraid to even stop and take a breath (or begin a new paragraph) for fear that winter would return, leaving Wednesday in our memory as nothing more than a sweet and too-short dream.”

So, it turned out, Ken Fuson could write a short story. Now about that sentence: a single, glorious, 280-word catalog of vernal ecstasy.

Smart editors who crave short writing must find places where such stories can flourish. Writers need and deserve praise – and good play – to encourage them to turn their epic hands to an occasional sonnet, and maybe, on one glorious day, a haiku.

This essay on short writing is about 3,000 words long. The Approximate Reading Time is 15 minutes.

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