Want your work read? Keep it short.
April 24, 2013
Want a writing prompt?
Try the newspaper.
Pick a topic from it.
Write a letter to the editor on that topic.
It is good practice.
And the newspaper offers a wide variety of topics – from politics and sports to business and government.
Most letters to the editor policies limit the number of words to, say, 200 or so.
Don’t let that word limit deter you.
Matter of fact, it is a helpful practice tool.
Begin by ignoring the word limit.
Write your letter. Say everything you want to say.
The first draft of your letter no doubt will exceed the word limit.
That not only is all right, it is good.
Suppose your initial draft totals 300 words.
Lets you practice word reduction.
Lets you start putting your letter on a diet.
Getting it down to, say, 250 words will be comparatively easy.
Then it is time to get tough.
Read your proposed letter word by word, line by line.
Cut words as you go.
Find a better way to say what you want to say in fewer words.
Keep doing this until you meet the newspaper’s word limit.
In the end, you will find your letter is more sharply focused, more precisely worded and better says what you want to say.
Want to really improve your letter?
Work, work, work until you get it down to 150 words.
It can be done.
Bet your 150-word letter will read much better than your 300-word letter.
Tip: Editors face the constant problem of space – not enough of it. The shorter the letter, the better the chance of its being published.
I know. I have been there.
I once kept reducing the length of a letter to The New York Times to the point that it was only 13 words.
Went like this:
To the Editor:
“Food package contents keep shrinking. The only thing shrinking faster is my dollar.”
Looking at it now, I see that I could have reduced it to twelve words. No need for “the” at the start of the second sentence.
So go ahead. Grab your newspaper. Find a prompt – an article, a topic – and start writing.
(Newspapers also are an excellent source of ideas for short stories and novels, but that is a topic for another day.)
When you have gotten your letter at or below the word limit, when you have made each word in it count – really count, say exactly what you want it to say – send it to the letters editor.
Who knows, it might get published.
And, even if it doesn’t, you have gotten some beneficial practice.
Plus, letters editors don’t send rejection letters.
When you don’t see it in the newspaper, you’ll know it won’t be.
Benefit to you? Good practice in tight, precise writing.
And if it does get published?
Bully for you, for you have established your very own bully pulpit.
Roger Summers is a journalist and essayist who spends time in Texas, New Mexico, England and a world of curiosity and creativity.