There are long texts, and there are short texts. In our current digital reality, there are also very short texts. Regardless of length, a text that is meaningful and successful is more than a sum of its parts, that is, its words. If that weren’t true, a massive historical novel spanning three volumes would always have been preferable to a short story of a few thousand words.
In fact, however, there is no qualitative difference based solely on the length of a work. An op-ed, when written with skill, can have much wider repercussions than a nonfiction book dealing with a similar issue. But although the above might appear self-evident, the question remains:
Why are some short texts so meaningful and successful?
This is an important question, because it allows a writer of short texts to understand the factors that affect the outcome. Short texts are not simply shorter versions of longer ones.
A personal essay is not merely an outline for an autobiography, as a novelette is not simply a trimmed version of a novel. Similarly, online texts such as blog posts or short commentaries should not be seen as merely condensed versions of traditionally printed texts.
Shorter texts require an entirely different approach in regard to narrative dynamics and style.
As I mentioned in my article on Greek loanwords, to write accurately is to write skillfully. Therefore, it is important to lay down some theoretical foundations on short texts: What do we mean by “narrative dynamics” and “style” in the context of writing successful short texts? Indeed, what do we mean by referring to a text as a “successful” one?
Let’s start with this latter question. A text, whether short or long, is successful if it accurately fulfills the function intended by the author. For works of fiction, a successful text mostly conveys affect—emotions, thoughts, or states of mind. For most nonfiction works, a successful text should mostly convey ideas and knowledge—deploying convincing arguments.
The operative word here is “mostly,” as there can be significant overlap. A good novel can also teach its readers a thing or two about the world. A great essay or article can convincingly make a point while still instigating an emotional reaction.
But how exactly can all these happen? Before answering that, we need to go back to defining the terms mentioned earlier.
The term “narrative dynamics” might legitimately mean different things to different people. Indeed, it might refer to different things on different occasions. But for our purposes, I would define narrative dynamics as the way the various parts of a text become interwoven to create a coherent meaning, as well as to instigate a certain reaction.
One could think of narrative dynamics as the way a text evolves. In fiction, think of the way a skillful author takes the reader on a fascinating journey of emotional discovery. In nonfiction, recall an article you’ve read, which, upon reaching a certain point, created an “aha!” moment, making the entire text before that point fall into place.
Narrative dynamics is the strategy to create a successful text. If narrative dynamics is the strategy, can you guess what is the tactics? It’s style! In this context, style could be defined as the word- and sentence-level devices and instances of expression an author uses, in order to gradually steer the text in a certain direction.
So far, so good. But now comes the big question: Why are short texts any different than longer ones?
A long text has, quite by definition, far more flexible limits in terms of expansion. Although, of course, an author should pay attention to matters of pace and focus, there is significant latitude in regard to a side plot or a flashback.
Imagine the 100,000-word biography of a politician. In the greater scheme of things, a chapter dedicated to an anecdote of their childhood isn’t crucial, strictly speaking. However, it can offer a lighthearted transitional segment between two more serious ones.
Now, let’s imagine a short political essay about that politician, with a length of a few thousand words. Such a short text cannot contain any deviation, for an important reason: proportions.
Attempting to “translate” the proportions of the autobiography into the essay from the example above, the nature of the problem becomes apparent. In other words, if a 5,000-word side-story chapter is all right for a 100,000-word text, the acceptable limit for an essay (which is itself usually around 5,000 words long) should not exceed 250 words. The crucial aspect, then, is this:
Just how much depth can a writer pack into 250 words?
The answer is, probably not much. In order to maintain the overall balance of the text, an author wanting to offer such a parenthetical remark would have to be very brief about it.
Inevitably, there would be a somewhat paradoxical setup at play: The shorter such a remark would be, the higher the chance for a shorter depth (whether argumentative for nonfiction, or affective for fiction). But, of course, then such a remark would not really serve a purpose in the first place. This catch-22 takes us to the first tip.
Tip 1: If spatial constraints don’t allow you to go deep into something, discard it.
As a writer myself—of fiction as well as nonfiction—I know first-hand how bad it feels to let go of something. It might be a great idea, something really smart. But if there simply isn’t enough space to properly explore it and give it the attention it deserves, it’s better to drop it.
One’s writing should be lean and mean and, as William Faulkner aptly put, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
It goes without saying that this is a great strategy for longer texts as well. However, it is particularly crucial for shorter ones, due to a certain peculiarity of theirs in terms of scope. Which brings us to the next item on the list.
The decision to include or exclude a parenthetical remark is a narrative one (or strategic, if you recall my earlier simile in the “Narrative Dynamics and Style” section). Let’s now talk about something that has strategic as well as tactical aspects (stylistic ones, in other words), and that is the impact and scope of a short text.
Although not unheard of, it is rather exceptional for someone to begin reading a book and not stop until they finish it. No matter how great a book is, it usually takes at least a day or two and usually quite a bit more.
Life happens in the meanwhile. New experiences might change the reader’s perspective. Quite possibly, the reader will reflect on the contents of the book before the reading process is complete.
A short text, by comparison, has to make its case here and now. If it’s rare for a reader to finish a book in one sitting, it’s probably as rare to interrupt a short text and come back to it later. To stop reading a short story or an op-ed means to not be hooked by it. For a reader to return later to such a text is not very probable. And so, here is the second tip.
Tip 2: Aim to maximize the impact of your text.
This operates on narrative (strategic) as well as stylistic (tactical) levels. In practical terms, it respectively means to:
You might have heard the terms “narrative hook” (fiction) and “lead paragraph” (nonfiction). These suggest grabbing the reader’s attention with the first paragraph of the text. A short text needs to operate in a similar way throughout its entire length, because losing the reader of a short text is never temporary, as I explained further above.
I saved this somewhat more theoretical (but highly important) part for last. So far, I have analyzed how short texts differ from their longer brethren due to peculiarities related to their textual structure.
We’ll now take a look at another element that goes beyond the text itself, and that is what I refer to as the temporality of a short text. In simple terms, this means the ability of a short text to create a wake that persists after the reading process is finished.
Once again, longer texts have a natural advantage here. Remember my comment earlier on life happening in the meanwhile? When it takes a person days or weeks to finish a book, it’s comparatively easier for the book (especially if it’s a great one) to occupy this reader’s thoughts.
There is a greater probability for this person to talk about the book, or even share something about it online. Short texts do not have this on their side. They need to compensate. And this takes us to the third tip of this list.
Tip 3: Aim to bridge the difference between the textual world and the real world.
This is directly related to Tip 2, describing impact and scope, only on a greater and more theoretical scale. A short text not only needs to grab the reader’s current attention, but also their future one.
In other words, shorter texts need to leave the reader with the impression of having read not simply “a good text,” but also one that has repercussions that are immediate and graspable, yet also far-reaching. This is even more crucial in the context of online writing.
There are vast numbers of content on the internet: articles, blogs, and commentaries, among other forms. The sheer number of them means readers don’t invest too much time on a text. Even if the text itself is skillfully written, that’s not enough. Readers quickly move on.
The author of online content needs to address the problem of its short lifespan. The best way to do that is by bridging the differences between the textual world and the real one.
In other words, writers of short texts (particularly online) need to bridge the gap between the theoretical experience and the lived experience.
Skillful writers not only analyze a topic for their readers, but they also show them how the topic is directly relevant for the readers’ lives, and the lives of their friends. This is the starting point for a short text living “outside” its own lifespan, most commonly in the form of being shared online, discussed, and referenced.
Umberto Eco, Italian novelist and literary critic, wrote a short essay titled “The Myth of Superman” that appeared in 1972 in the peer-reviewed journal Diacritics. A quick Google search would reveal that the article is still referenced, talked about, shared, and analyzed, almost half a century later!
Its meanings are as relevant as ever in media studies, literary studies, and even sociology. Quite literally, Eco’s essay is not only a great example, but also the definition of a successful short text.
In a nutshell, “The Myth of Superman” takes the ubiquitous superhero and makes a case about what it means to live in the eternal now. Superman, Eco argues, does precisely that. In the world of Superman, each story resets time to zero, and any improvement at the end disappears by the time the next story begins. To talk of ethics then, Eco claims, becomes meaningless; help is delegated to simple charity.
Why would not Superman, Eco asks, fight poverty or systemic issues? Why would he limit himself to the equivalent of saving kittens from trees? Because any large-scale changes would essentially violate the frozen-clock paradigm. And so, the system that created Superman in the first place has an incentive to keep things this way.
Written skillfully, even theoretical texts can be easy to read. I had to read “The Myth of Superman” for a class during my undergraduate studies. I don’t remember which class it was, let alone anything else about the class. But I remember the essay because it became the first spark that ignited my interest in the subject of time and symbolism—all the way to my doctoral dissertation.
In writing his essay, Eco succeeded in all of the elements I listed above. Despite its academic-level theoretical depth, the short essay remains accessible and easy to read.
This is to a large extent because there are no unnecessary diversions (Tip 1) and great narrative cohesion from one segment to the next (Tip 2). Reading the essay, I remember how easy it felt, how much I wanted to read the next paragraph, and the next, to see where it all led me.
Naturally, this was a result of the many interesting elements sprinkled along the text (Tip 2). The entire concept is one giant hook. It is an ingenious idea to use a mythical superhero to make shrewd comments on issues of ethics, media, and society. This is the reason why the short essay is still talked about (Tip 3).
I mentioned in this article how long texts might have certain advantages over short texts. However, this is perhaps not entirely fair to say; I would like to make that clear. With greater flexibility also comes greater responsibility, and all too often we see books failing to take advantage of this flexibility.
On the other hand, however, shorter texts have advantages, too. They can be written quickly, which makes it easier for an author to stay “in the zone.” Furthermore, to write quickly means greater flexibility in responding to current, relevant issues.
Of course, once again, flexibility entails risks. A writer of a short text may become lost in a dead-end divergence, losing focus. Other dangers include the lack of cohesion between narrative segments, or an excessively prosaic, plain text. The latter in particular can have detrimental effects on a short text’s memorability.
However, every difficulty is also an opportunity to shine; every obstacle an opportunity to climb higher. It is precisely these problem areas that can push an author of short texts to polish them and turn them into works with long-lasting impact.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops Android apps focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general.