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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Jan. 4, 2005
Updated, Jan. 5, 2005

QuickLink: A76058

Writing Tool #38: Polish Your Jewels
In shorter works, don't waste a syllable.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Polish your jewels.

I've seen the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian. At 45 carats, it is big and blue and buxom, but not beautiful. Smaller gems have more facets and reflect light more brilliantly.

The same can be true of writing. In the ideal, the author of a great big novel should not waste a syllable, but he will, and, chances are, given the setting, the reader will not notice. The shorter the story form, the more precious is each word. So polish your jewels.

Writing with video images and natural sound, Charles Kuralt was the master of making each word -- each pause -- count:

"I have fallen in love with American names," wrote the poet Stephen Vincent Benet.

Well, really -- how could you not? Not if you've been to Lick Skillet, Texas, and Bug Tussle, and Nip and Tuck, and Cut and Shoot. In California you can travel from Humbug Flat to Lousy Level, with a detour to Gouge Eye.

Could the good people of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, use some Hot Coffee, Mississippi, to wake them up?

You can go from Matrimony, North Carolina, to Caress, Virginia -- or from Caress to Matrimony.

I have passed time in Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky, and Bowlegs and Tombstone, Big Chimney and Bull Town. And I liked Dwarf, Kentucky, though it's just a little town.

"I have fallen in love with American names." How could anybody not?

Robert Louis Stevenson was also struck by the wealth upon our maps. He wrote, "There is not part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous, and picturesque, as the United States of America." He called our country a "songful, tuneful land."

That's it, the whole essay.

My friend Peter Meinke, a brilliant poet, taught me that short writing forms have three peculiar strengths. Their brevity can give them a focused power; it creates opportunity for wit; and it inspires the writer to polish, to reveal the luster of the language. Kuralt's essay exemplifies all three, capturing the power of the American language with witty examples off the American map, each clever name another facet cut into the diamond.

In his Q & A newspaper column, Jeff Elder wrote this response to a query about the extinction of an American species:

Passenger pigeons looked like mourning doves, but more colorful, with wine-red breasts, green necks and long blue tail feathers.

In 1800, there were 5 billion in North America. They were in such abundance that the new technology of the Industrial Revolution was enthusiastically employed to kill them. Telegraphs tracked their migration. Enormous roosts were gassed from trees while they slept. They were shipped to market in rail car after rail car after rail car. Farmers bought two dozen birds for a dollar, as hog feed.

In one human generation, America's most populous native bird was wiped out.

There's a stone wall in Wisconsin's Wyalusing State Park. On it is a bronze plaque of a bird. It reads: "This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man."

When I ask readers to appreciate this piece, they point to its many shiny facets. Here are some of the things they notice:

  • "The phrase 'rail car after rail car after rail car' actually looks like a rail car."
  • "The phrase 'were gassed' carries connotations of a holocaust."
  • "The first paragraph is filled with natural imagery; but the second contains the language of destructive technology."
  • "Given their extinction, it is fitting that the pigeons looked like 'mourning' doves. The author takes advantage of that coincidence."

In short writing the ending is visible to the reader from the get-go. With his good ending, Elder adds a finish to the polish.

Here is a caption to a photo that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution:

As a Navy bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" and men and women dabbed at tears, the Atlanta History Center on Thursday dedicated the city's first permanent memorial to metro-area men who died in the Vietnam War.

Erected by the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans business Association, the marker was unveiled as friends and relatives of the fallen, including Janel Harrison (left), watched in silence. It is in a new park on the history center grounds, at the corner of Slaton Drive and West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead.

Association President Rick Lester read a poem to the fallen that appears on the memorial's bronze plaque. An Army band played martial tunes, a seven-person rifle squad fired a 21-gun salute, and three Army helicopters flew over. Buglers played taps.

Newly laid pine straw and sod gave the memorial the look of a fresh grave.

The author, Bill Hendrick, turns the most conventional of newspaper forms, the photo caption, into a little gem of a story. He transforms what could have been an informational brief into a tiny, shiny narrative, a story of loss and memory, of the sacred and profane.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. Re-read the three short pieces above. Study them for their polished style. Make an inventory of the techniques the writers use to create the effect of the story as a polished jewel.

2. Find the shortest story you have written in the last year. Compare it to the examples above. Try revising it so that every word works.

3. Volunteer to write a photo caption like the one above. Practice on your own, using news or feature photos from newspapers or magazines.

4. Begin a collection of short writing forms. Share these with colleagues. Discuss how they are written. Make a list of techniques you could use in your writing.

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