Coming Soon to the Small Screen (revisited)

Are you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? On some other diminutive device being introduced even as I write this? Knowing that you could be gives me pause. The smartphone has become a primary reading device.[1] So, unless you write nothing but lost-cat posters destined for telephone poles, or other print pieces that no one will ever upload to the Web, you have little choice but to join me in grappling with this question: what must writers do differently to accommodate the small screen?

The answer, I believe, is … nothing.

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“Explore and Heighten”: Magic Words From a Playwright

When a piece I’m writing needs a little more … something, I call to mind these three powerful words: explore and heighten. I owe this incantation to playwright Alan Gross, who practically chanted it during a workshop that I attended one summer during my college years. Whatever I’m writing, this phrase invariably nudges the content that oh-so-helpful extra bit further… Continue reading

Coming soon to the small screen

iPhoneAre you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? Somebody is. Somebody is reading everything on a smartphone.

How does this shift to the small screen affect how we write? What should we do differently?

Nothing. We simply do more of what has always worked.

Sure, we have to adapt page formatting and image sizes and load times for handheld devices. If you’ve ever struggled to read a full-size web page by pinching and pushing it around on a 2×3-inch screen — and if you’ve also experienced the ease of reading the same information when it’s formatted for that screen (thanks to a mobile version of the site or to a reformatting app like Wikipanion) — you know what I mean.

But presentation issues are not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about text. I’m talking about your words, which — sooner or later, like it or not, whatever you’re writing, regardless of your intended medium — might end up displayed in someone’s hand.

Some claim that writers should accommodate small screens by “keeping it short.” But short is the wrong goal. The goal, still, is concise. Tight. Economical. Say it well, and your readers will want to read it all.

Do justice to your content. Include those clarifying details. Develop your arguments. Let paragraphs find their rightful lengths. Don’t stop short just because the screen does.

But do cut every word you can. Be more ruthless than ever. Do the extra edit. Review your words on a smartphone. Then edit again. As screens shrink, every word must work harder to keep its little piece of real estate. Make each one count.

r y cld jst dlt ll th vwls. (Or you could just delete all the vowels.)

P.S. Are you hip to smartphones and tablets and other “external prosthetic devices”?* See my guest post on the larger topic of mobile technology and its effects on the way people (including, notably, marketeers) do just about everything. In that post —  Marketing pros: Time to think small – I describe what I heard and saw at a seminar called “The Art of Pop Tech Marketing: 2011 Mobile Technology.”

*The phrase “external prosthetic device” comes from Amber Case, who was one of the presenters at the seminar. Know any people whose machines have melded with their bodies?

Use contrast: The long and short of it

Designer Jan White asks (about magazines), “What makes pages interesting? Why do people pay attention? Because they sense something there that they are curious about – the subject matter. But presenting the subject in a take-it-or-leave-it way is not good enough.” [1]

What technique, according to White, turns magazine “lookers into readers”?


The same technique that White uses to delight the eye, composer Franz Von Suppé uses to delight the ear. His Pique Dame Overture begins with a series of whisper-soft, gently-paced notes that tip-toe from measure to measure until suddenly the orchestra explodes. The first time I heard this opening, I laughed. [2]

If the Pique Dame Overture were text, the first few measures would look like this:

Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet.
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet-deet-deet. Deet-deet…
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet.
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet-deet-deet…


How can writers get in on the fun? For starters, vary these two things:

  • sentence length
  • paragraph length

Just look at the Pique Dame “sentences” and “paragraphs” above.

As for sentence length, to achieve the kind of contrast that makes for the liveliest, most enticing writing, you might have to fight a tendency to write sentences that all have about the same number of words. Be bold. If you’re going to contrast, CONTRAST. When you have a long sentence that’s full of lots and lots and lots of words, like this one, put a shorter sentence – even a fragment – next to it. Like this.

Same goes for paragraphs: Go for dramatic variety in length. Of course, paragraphs still need to hang together based on their content. You still need transitions, topic sentences, examples, logical progression of ideas — all the basics that you learned in high school. What our English teachers never taught us, though, was to use paragraphs as pigment. When you squint at your page, do you see a stack of same-sized grey rectangles as enticing as a cinder-block wall?

Or not?

When it comes to deciding what goes in those eye-catchingly short paragraphs, follow Jan White’s advice, and “make the important elements stand out.” Use the spotlight of white space. All but your truest fans skim your long paragraphs. But everyone reads your short paragraphs.

Make them count.


Related links:

[1] Jan White’s article (

[2] A sample of Pique Dame, as conducted brilliantly by Zubin Mehta (