"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." - Mark Twain
Done any writing?
I was was surprised at how much easier it is to write long points than short ones.
It's easy to make any point in 4,000 words. Much harder to do it in 400.
My most recent quest is to figure out how to write good and short... reasonably quickly. This is harder than it sounds. In a short piece, every word takes on much more meaning. You can get away with 40 sloppy words in a 4,000 word piece. You can't get away with 40 sloppy words in a 400 word piece.
Good/short/fast is a tough nut to crack, but if there's any way to do it, it's probably to start with a picture, and build your writing around it.
Let's look like at five popular posts. Keep in mind they're written for very different audiences, but they were all very popular with their target audience -
The Ultimate Productivity System by Sid Savara -
That image headlines Sid Savara's "Ultimate Productivity System" - the rest of the post fills out the details, and provides links to other relevant entries.... by working your way through the flow of that image, you can understand exactly how Sid makes decisions on productivity. Then, it's natural to follow the links in that article to related points.
Headling Chester Grant's "Low Skills Cause Procrastination" is this image -
...which captures the entire point more elegantly than any words could.
That said, you don't need to actual pictures to create pictures. Let's look at "Conversion of Expected Evidence," which Eliezer Yudkowsky opens with one of the most memorable points you'll ever read about probability and evidence -
Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, a priest who heard the confessions of condemned witches, wrote in 1631 the Cautio Criminalis ('prudence in criminal cases') in which he bitingly described the decision tree for condemning accused witches: If the witch had led an evil and improper life, she was guilty; if she had led a good and proper life, this too was a proof, for witches dissemble and try to appear especially virtuous. After the woman was put in prison: if she was afraid, this proved her guilt; if she was not afraid, this proved her guilt, for witches characteristically pretend innocence and wear a bold front. Or on hearing of a denunciation of witchcraft against her, she might seek flight or remain; if she ran, that proved her guilt; if she remained, the devil had detained her so she could not get away.
Conservation of Expected Evidence could easily be a dull, academic topic, but writing about the Inquisitor who uses any evidence to damn the person he's investigating... it paints a picture that stays with you no matter what.
Just putting simple, imprecise numbers on something can help make a complex point really vivid. Take Derek Sivers's "Ideas are just a multiplier of execution" -
AWFUL IDEA = -1
WEAK IDEA = 1
SO-SO IDEA = 5
GOOD IDEA = 10
GREAT IDEA = 15
BRILLIANT IDEA = 20
NO EXECUTION = $1
WEAK EXECUTION = $1000
SO-SO EXECUTION = $10,000
GOOD EXECUTION = $100,000
GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000
BRILLIANT EXECUTION = $10,000,000
The rest of the post bookends that table - ideas can help, but don't amount to much without multiplication. The reader is naturally drawn to play around and multiply various idea/execution combinations.
Take Leo Babauta's "a brief guide to life" -
less TV, more reading
less shopping, more outdoors
less clutter, more space
less rush, more slowness
less consuming, more creating
less junk, more real food
less busywork, more impact
less driving, more walking
less noise, more solitude
less focus on the future, more on the present
less work, more play
less worry, more smiles
Leo strips away everything except pictures. Look at his first six points on the list - less TV, more reading, less shopping, more outdoors, less clutter, more space... all of those immediately call clear pictures to mind.
If you want to write a good short piece reasonably quickly, start with the picture. Then fill the words around it.
This post by Douglas Ingram is exceptional:
Lessons in Entrepreneurship via the Lemonade Stand
It came up on my Google Alerts, and, wow, it's got to be one of the coolest things I've seen this year. And I've seen a lot of cool this year, so that's saying something.
Douglas's whole approach is really, really cool. Some excerpts:
We use the Dave Ramsey school of thought with our daughter. Each week she gets a small allowance that she allocates (her choice) to four different envelopes (a) spend (b) save (c) invest (d) donate.
Jared sat in an armchair, set at angle to the flickering fireplace. As Jamie rose from the sofa that created the rest of the angle, he glanced up, hazel eyes framed by a bare hint of gray in his dark hair. She smiled softly at his inquisitive glance, and shook her head. His lips twitched back, and she moved through the hallway, into the kitchen.
When Jamie returned, Jared had gone back to staring at the crackling fire. She set down a glass of wine onto the table to the right of the armchair, and he looked up at the sound of glass meeting wood.
"You only ever stare at the fire and be silent like that when something's on your mind." Jamie laid a hand on his shoulder for a moment, then raised it to caress his cheek. Jared leaned into the touch, closing his eyes, and they remained there for a silent moment. Then she continued, "What is it, babe?"
The endearment always brought a smile to Jared's face, and it did not fail this time. One side of Jared's mouth lifted. "I don't really know, Jamie."
She glanced at the piece of thick paper he grasped in the gap between two fingers. Jared had not once released it the whole evening, Jamie noticed. He caught her glance, and he gave another crooked expression, one shoulder rising and falling. "You know I never keep anything more serious than planned gifts or vacations a secret from you. This came today."