31 Jul

Short is Hard



“For sale: baby shoes, never used.”
—(complete) short story by Ernest Hemingway

The most useful thing I learned in high school—at least, the most useful thing that was part of the curriculum—came in senior English, as taught by Ms. Edith Pratt (Patty) Masterson: the “précis.”

In case you were spared such torture, a précis (pray-see) is a condensed version of an essay. Not notes, not commentary, not interpretation. Just a condensed, readable version that captures the essence of the original in a fraction of the words, without quoting.

And trust me, it’s hard.

But short is hard. Writing “long” is easy. Wandering logic here, purple prose there. When you have unlimited pages, you have the freedom, and space, to take your own sweet time getting to your point.

But that wasn’t the goal of the exercise. Bat (as she was known to students and colleagues alike) gave us word limits. So, for example, we had to reduce a 5,000-word essay or short story to 250—and still maintain its essence.

And then she’d make us write a précis of the précis, and get it down to 50—and still maintain its essence.

I hated those assignments. But from them I learned to read through words to see the point.

Six words, 140 characters, a tagline, a name. When was the last time you had to take something down to its essence? Did you?

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Round the Square.