The Joy and Challenge of Writing Short
Can you write it short?
Can you write it sweet?
Can you find what's necessary, truly necessary
Make it fit without a shoehorn
a bigger hammer
Make it flow like water in the desert
like sand in the ocean
like blood from an old wound,
Rise like stars after sunset
like bread in a brick oven
like hope after ruin?
Writing "short" is a challenge. Reporters and publicists have to adhere to column inches, word counts, and airtime. Bloggers aim for under a thousand words, many for under 500. Twitter posts weigh in at 240 characters. Interpretive writers are routinely faced with conveying the intricacies and complexities of science, art, and society in spaces that make Twitter seem vast by comparison. Essayists and short story writers have a little more elbow room, perhaps as many as 5,000 words, which isn't many when you're exploring an idea in depth. Playwrights and filmscript writers aren't immune either.
And it isn't enough to be short. We have to be clear as well as concise—and emotionally engaging, so our readers will stick with us.
But being forced to pare everything down (often further than you think is possible) is also great fun, something I was reminded of thanks to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Daniela Hernandez's article begins on the front page of the March 26, 2019 issue with this headline:
Haikus About Space
Make Science Less Tedious
So Hope Scientists
That's in fact what the article is about, beginning with the story of how it has become a tradition for scientists submitting papers for the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) to submit haiku or other short poem forms to describe their work instead of using one-sentence summaries. She begins with this one, by Aine O'Brien:
Look at falling sky
Rock from big red rock in black
Sky to find life signs
The title of O'Brien's paper is "The Effects of Shock and Raman Laser Irradiation on the Maturity of Organics in Martian Meteorites."
Coincidentally, both the haiku and the formal title have 16 words. The haiku has 17 syllables; the title has 32. The title is a jargon-packed mouthful that takes me a long time to decipher (including the time to look up "Raman Laser Irradiation" and verify that it has nothing to do with ramen noodles, but not counting the momentary distraction of the Google search result, "Can ramen noodles kill you?"). The haiku delivers immediate understanding: She's trying to find out if there's life on Mars! and an emotional reaction: How cool! I want to know more.
At first blush, it seems that all we're talking about is using simple words in place of jargon. After all, there isn't enough room in haiku for all those syllables, and it's true that jargon can get in the way of effective communication.
But there's more going on here than "make-it-simpler-and-shorter."
Writing short forces us to think about our story and its details in different ways, often leading to creative breakthroughs and fresh approaches. For science writers, it helps uncover elegant ways to communicate the core meaning of research so that someone unfamiliar with the field can understand it. For interpretive writers, it's the heart of creating powerful interpretive themes. It forms the through-line or spine of a film script or play. It's how we express the core idea we're exploring in an essay or story.
When we get these "summary statements" right, they help readers understand quickly what we're talking about and why it's important. They engage our readers emotionally too, through delight, surprise, and the satisfaction that comes when we master something difficult. Perhaps equally important, they give our readers the language they need to share what they've learned with others, extending the reach of our stories far beyond the place where they first appeared.
Although haiku are short, don't be fooled: they take time and effort to write. Regular practice can speed things up a bit; I know that award-winning nature writer and memoirist Susan Tweit writes haiku faster than I ever will, because she writes one every morning and posts it along with a photo on Facebook and Twitter.
You still have to know what you're trying to communicate (and be open to the surprises that show up on the page). You still have to write that first draft first, and fuss around with that draft until you get to the place you want to be. That might take an hour; it might take most of this week. It might mean you lock yourself away in your room so you can work undisturbed; it might mean you gather more info and bounce ideas off of friends and family.
Be assured that the end result will be worth it.
For more on haiku, especially "sciku" (a portmanteau of science and haiku):
The Sciku Project
Founded by Andrew Holmes, the Sciku Project presents the latest scientific discoveries in haiku form – sciku!
Check out the "contribute" page for submission guidelines: https://thescikuproject.com/contribute/
and this page for some excellent writing tips to get you started: https://thescikuproject.com/about/sciku-writing-tips/
On Twitter: @thescikuproject
LPSC Abstract Haiku
The 2019 winners: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2019/haiku/
More entries here: https://lpschaiku.tumblr.com/post/141153525936/rover-picks-zaps-rocks-without-earth-in-the-loop#notes
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab Planetary Poetry Activity
The lesson plans here are great for grown-ups, too: lots of ideas and guidance, no matter your experience level (or age!). Includes short summaries of different poem forms, lesson plan and ideas; you can even download a pdf of example poems.
Possibly my favorite web interactive: the Sciku Elements Table
Elemental haiku by Mary Soon Lee, August 4, 2017
(with an option to share your own on Twitter, #ChemHaiku)
And a humble offering of my own, with a variation:
stories hum sweetly
along humanity's rails
skiku reveals heart
skiku reveals heart
along humanity's rails
stories hum sweetly
I like the first one because the last line feels more like a surprise. I like the second one because it (maybe) pushes "rails" to both the metaphorical meaning (railroad rails ≈ humanity's path) and the meaning of "rail" as in rant, berate, protest, or criticize loudly, plus the idea that stories help ease conflict appeals to me.
Do they encapsulate what I'm trying to say?
Share YOUR short and sweet!
Email your haiku or other short form, for any project or idea you're working on, and I'll share them in a future newsletter.