The ability to craft compelling copy in as few words as possible isn't just for advertising copy writers any more. Today, short-form writing is a marketable skill for anyone seeking any position. That's in part because of social media, which trades in brevity. But with more people getting bombarded by more messaging, short and clear is generally going to carry the day.
Big ideas in small packages
Somewhere along the way, I developed a talent for writing short. This certainly has come in handy in the current clime, when status messages and tweets favor the brief. But I discovered this talent back in the early days of the web. I used to write venue reports for Citysearch. I got a whopping 75 words to tell you everything you need to know about a place, including signature dishes/drinks, decor, clientele, dress code, etc. It had to be narrative, not just a list. And it had to be "zippy" -- engaging and with the Citysearch voice.
Later, I wrote short pieces for Playboy. Some were 35 words, others as many as 150. Again, it was critical to tell a story in these write-ups, whether it was an article on vice stocks, a glow-in-the-dark keyboard, or how office supplies are a sexual turn-off (seriously, there was even a study!). They compensated me very well for my tiny tomes because they knew they were hard to write well, and because readers loved them.
Most recently, I had to encapsulate great sights and activities in central North Carolina in 33 words for AirTran's in-flight magazine. You've really got to work your distilling and word choice skills hard to accomplish that!
When you've spent so much time in school struggling to meet the insane word- and page-counts your teachers and profs put on you, you think writing short is going to be a dream come true. But the fact is, it takes more effort to tell a story in 50 words than in 500 or 50,000. Word choice matters -- a lot. Style points are harder to earn, but metaphors and plays on words have more impact. It's akin to writing poetry, where every word, every device counts. Where the writing shows more than it tells. (Click here for tips on how to put more tell in your writing)
Models of short-form excellence
The New Yorker has great examples of short-form writing every week in its Goings On About Town section. If you're trying to improve your short-form writing, take a close look at these little gems. Think about what makes them work from your point of view as a reader. Do the same with the people you think write the best tweets and status updates. What makes them good?
The more you can quantify what works -- and what doesn't -- the more you can learn what to do with your own writing. Take those examples you like and try to write something like it. It takes practice, but if you stick with it, you'll find that your own ability to communicate effectively in brief improves dramatically. (See what an effective tweet looks like)
A strategy for writing short
To make sure you get the right ideas, you can use the Idea-Details Strategy© developed by Steve Peha:
For more on using this strategy, click here.