Writing Tools: Roy Peter Clark provides tools for improving your writing.

An undated photo of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (AP Photo)

What writers and speakers can learn from the Gettysburg Address

Editor’s note: Nov. 19 is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, arguably the most famous speech in American history. In his new book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, Roy Peter Clark devotes the chapter “Surprise with brevity” to an examination of Lincoln’s speech. It is reprinted here with permission of publisher Little, Brown.

In the fourth grade I memorized and delivered the Gettysburg Address to my parochial school classmates. I can’t remember the assignment that inspired my performance, but I do recall that I was more parrot than poet, reciting Lincoln by rote with no understanding of historical context or of the meaning of individual words and phrases, beginning with “Four score and seven…” The only “four score” I knew was a grand-slam home run at Yankee Stadium.

Still, I grade that now-distant experience as among the most formative of my life. It put my young brain to hard work. It put me in front of an audience. And it put on my lips what is arguably the greatest short piece of writing in American history.

Five versions of the speech survive, along with news accounts from the period. The standard version is 269 words, and experts believe it contains revisions that Abraham Lincoln made himself so that his best thoughts could be preserved for posterity in the best language.

As a schoolboy, I was told that the president had scribbled the speech on the back of an envelope during the train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania battle sites. That tale turns out not to be true, but I embraced it as a kid. If little George Washington could chop down a cherry tree and then own up to it, surely Honest Abe could push a pen on the back of an envelope.

Such civic parables may mask a more inspiring history. Lincoln looked terrible that day and complained of illness, and some scholars speculate that he may have been suffering from a form of smallpox. The president was not the main speaker at the cemetery dedication and — already ill and fatigued — had to endure a stem-winder of more than two hours by former senator and Harvard College president Edward Everett, considered the most celebrated orator of his day.

Hostile editorialists criticized Lincoln’s address as short, shallow, and unworthy of the civic liturgy. But for most who heard or read it, the speech became famous because of its brevity. Let’s do the math. Everett spoke for two hours; Lincoln for two minutes. The now-forgotten oration was sixty times longer than the Gettysburg Address.

To Everett’s credit, no one recognized the disparity or gave Lincoln more props than he did. “I should be glad,” wrote Everett in a letter to his president, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The obvious difference in the two speeches was length, but that was not the only difference. Though there is a formality to Lincoln’s language that to modern eyes seems appropriate for the occasion, in the shadow of Everett’s classical oration, the president’s speech seems as spare as a Quaker meeting room. Here is a quick sample of Everett’s speech — and remember, as you read it, that back then long dramatic orations were considered forms of public entertainment:

It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre, where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives, — flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases, (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe,) — the last tributes of surviving affection.

Imagine having to sit or stand through two hours of this, waiting for President Lincoln’s two minutes. As I read the speech, it does not surprise me that as Harvard’s president, Everett was unpopular with the students, who referred to him as Granny.

In his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, historian Garry Wills asserts that the famous speech helped create a new form of political discourse, “a revolution in style.” Sonorous and bombastic language gave way to the plain and simple — with this caveat:

It would be wrong to think that Lincoln moved toward the plain style of the Gettysburg just by writing shorter, simpler sentences. Actually, that Address ends with a very long sentence — eighty two words, almost a third of the whole talk’s length.

Wills argues that at their best “Lincoln’s words acquired a flexibility of structure, a rhythmic pacing, a variation in length of words and phrases and clauses and sentences, that make his sentences move ‘naturally’ for all their density and scope.”

Not only could Lincoln draft great short writing, but he could find it in the unpolished work of others. The most persuasive example of the president’s “verbal workshop” comes from a revision of his adviser William Seward. For the conclusion to the first Inaugural Address, Seward had suggested:

The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.

Lincoln takes the frothy sentence and applies the tools of an old-timey newspaper rewrite-man:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

New Yorker editor Dorothy Wickenden describes the effect this way: “Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history.” The lesson for those who write short is that brevity loves company — in the form of substance and style.

This book began with the reflection that the right words in the right order might be worth a thousand pictures. When I hear the famous words of Lincoln, or a recitation of the Twenty-Third Psalm, or the final, climactic litany of Dr. King standing before the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, I close my eyes and hear and then see images, word pictures that fill my heart and fire up my soul, language that sets my imagination soaring.

There is a lesson here for all of us. Students, teachers, workers, bosses — most citizens find themselves with the duty of having to deliver a report, a presentation, a case study, a sermon, a speech. We know that this task — while common and important — often induces great anxiety in the speaker. One way to accomplish the task with the minimum amount of performance anxiety is to remember Honest Abe and keep the message short. Think of how grateful you are as a listener when the graduation speaker, no matter how powerful, delivers the goods in ten minutes rather than twenty, or even better, five minutes rather than ten. Read more


Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013


Have you lost that writing feeling? Is it gone, gone, gone…?

The dialogue with a stranger on a plane often goes something like this:

Stranger:  “What do you do for a living?”
Me:  “I’m a teacher.”
Stranger:  “What do you teach?”
Me: “I teach writing.”

The response from the stranger is almost predictable. Odd looks. Nervous laughter. Usually followed by an admission that he doesn’t like to write, or that she tried to write in school once but it didn’t work out, or that he has to write as part of his job — but hates it.

Even professional writers will confess their loss of passion for their craft.

So do we hate writing? Or does writing hate us?

This feeling has many different names: writing anxiety, writing apprehension, writers’ block, paralyzing procrastination, aversive conditioning. The best description of the problem comes from the international reading scholar Frank Smith, who once described literacy as “a club.” Usually, something bad happens in school that persuades people that they are not fit to become members of the “writing club.”

This is a very sad state of affairs. And more important: it doesn’t have to be this way. If writing is hard or frustrating to you. If you once loved writing but have now “lost that lovin’ feeling,” as the Righteous Brothers once sang, there is something you can do about it.


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Wednesday, Oct. 02, 2013


Why stories need a focus … or do they?

If there is one writing lesson that Poynter has taught for more than three decades now, it’s that good stories need a sharp focus.

I once heard my friend Chip Scanlan say that all parts of the writing process amount to these three words: focus, focus, focus.

We focus the:

  • Story idea
  • Reporting
  • Structure
  • Ending
  • Language
  • Revision

And, yes, we probably even focus the focus.

I have compared focus to the way that the eyedoctor tests you for new lenses. The image is supposed to get sharper and sharper with each slight correction.

But there’s always a big but, isn’t there?

How do we account for great works of art that defy all attempts to declare a focus? Does Hamlet have a focus? Or Moby Dick? Or Huckleberry Finn? What makes these works great (and perhaps flawed at the same time) is a certain recklessness on the part of the writer, a sense that the story cannot be easily defined or confined by theme or “focus.”

It is OK to face the question: “What is your story REALLY about?” and answer, “It’s REALLY about a lot of things.”


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Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013


How to write longform stories

You knew it was only a matter of time until the author of “How to Write Short” would turn his attention to “How to Write Long.”

It turns out that long and short writing are not necessarily in conflict. Think for a moment about your favorite magazines. Compared to newspapers, the long stories in magazines are longer, and the shorter pieces are shorter. It’s the combination of short and long that make a publication versatile for readers.

Although I’ve met some writers who tell me “I want to write shorter,” that is the exception.  Most writers I know — including me — want to go longer. The daily beat reporter wants to do a Sunday feature. The Sunday feature writer wants to do a series. A series writer wants to do a book. The book author wants to do a trilogy.

If you have had any of these aspirations and want tips on how to write longform pieces, replay out chat:


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Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013


Introduction to ‘How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times’

(Editor’s note: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” is the fourth in a series of writing and language books written by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and published by Little, Brown, beginning with “Writing Tools,” “The Glamour of Grammar,” and “Help! For Writers.” The Introduction to his new book is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. The book just came out today.)

Cover of Clark’s new book.

Introduction:  When Words Are Worth a Thousand Pictures

At this moment, the right pocket in my jeans contains more computing power than the space vessel that carried the first astronauts to the moon. My Apple iPhone 4GS stores all of Shakespeare’s plays, a searchable source I can use for quick reference. More often, I use my mobile phone for access to what are no longer being called “new” forms of information delivery: blog posts, e-mails, text messages, YouTube videos, 140-character tweets, and Facebook updates, not to mention games, weather reports, Google Maps, coupons, the White House, Al Jazeera, NPR, dozens of newspapers, music sites, an electronic drum set, an app that imitates the sounds of Star Wars lightsabers, one that turns your photo into an image of a zombie, and yet another invaluable resource titled Atomic Fart, which turns your mobile device into an electronic whoopee cushion.

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we’re soaring high above Oz, looking down like a Google Earth search. We’re high on technology, but adrift in a jet stream of information. All the more reason to write short — and well.

I’ve written “How to Write Short” because I could not find another book quite like it and because in the digital age, short writing is king. We need more good short writing — the kind that makes us stop, read, and think — in an accelerating world. A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct. Such is our appetite for short writing that not only do our long stories seem too long, but our short stories feel too long as well.

The most important messages are short, after all: “Amen, brother.” “Will you marry me?” “I do.” “Not guilty.” “The Giants win the pennant!” (That message was so exciting in 1951 that the radio announcer Russ Hodges repeated it five times.) “Score!” “You’re fired.” “I love you.”

In his book “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little,” Christopher Johnson writes, “Messages of just a word, a phrase, or a short sentence or two — micromessages — lean heavily on every word and live or die by the tiniest stylistic choices. Micromessages depend not on the elements of style but on the atoms of style.” To which I would add, “Not just the atoms of style but the quirks and quarks of style as well.”

The New York Times reported the death of Osama Bin Laden with a two-tier headline of fifteen words. On the other hand, Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times chose a single word for its headline — DEAD — but printed it in letters that were five inches high.

More than four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare built his fame on the construction of thirty-seven plays, more or less, at least half of them masterpieces. But he also penned 154 love poems called sonnets, each exactly fourteen lines in length.  The Bard demonstrated how long and short writing can coexist. For the first fourteen lines of “Romeo and Juliet,” he composed a sonnet that summarized the key plot elements, including (spoiler alert!) the news that “a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”

To cut down the number of words we moderns use, we could revert to Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets or Egyptian hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls. They say, after all, that a picture is worth a thousand words. I have seen some pictures that were worth a thousand words, but being a man of the word, I remain open to the idea that some words may be worth a thousand pictures. Consider these historical and cultural documents:

  • The Hippocratic oath
  • The Twenty-third Psalm
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
  • The preamble to the Constitution
  • The Gettysburg Address
  • The last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

I once exchanged messages with NPR’s Scott Simon, who shared this important idea, which he learned from his stepfather: If you add up the words in these documents, the sum will be fewer than a thousand, 996 by my count. Show me any number of pictures as powerful as those seven documents.

Now meet Joanna Smith, a young reporter for the Toronto Star. Picture her, early in 2010, hitting the ground in Haiti, a country rocked by earthquake. She will file dispatches by the minute using Twitter. Smith posts dozens of short reports in the form of tweets, each limited to 140 characters: “Fugitive form prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.” One by one, each post is a vivid snapshot of natural and human disaster. Together they constitute something akin to a serial narrative with short chapters, or a “live blog.”

Writers who complain about a 140-character limit are, shall we say, shortsighted. But consider this array of sentences, expressed easily with the tight boundaries of a tweet:

  • “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
  • “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
  • “Take my wife, please.”
  • “Where’s the beef?”
  • “I like Ike.”

That list include a famous line form a political pamphlet by Thomas Paine, a telegram from Mark Twain, a joke by Henny Youngman, an advertising campaign for Wendy’s, and a presidential political slogan. When I add them up, I get 122 characters. We still have room for Saint Paul’s “faith, hope, love.”

So the culture turns: short, shorter, even shorter, abbreviation, acronym, emoticon.  Maybe explorers from a future generation will discover that our discourse devolved to the point that combinations of smiley and frowny faces could be used as the binary elements to express everything from love poems to eulogies to State of the Union addresses.

Now for the good news: writing in short forms does not require the sacrifice of literary values. The poet Peter Meinke talks about the power that comes from focus, wit, and polish.  Focus in the unifying theme. Wit is the governing intelligence. Polish creates the sparkle that comes from careful word choice and revision.

The demand for good short writing is not an innovation. That need can be traced, through countless examples, back to the origins of writing itself. Here for example, is a list, not exhaustive, of forms of short writing that users of the Internet have inherited in one way or another: prayers, epigrams, wisdom literature, epitaphs, short poetic forms (such as haiku, sonnet, couplet), language on monuments, letters, rules of thumb, labels (as on poison bottles), lyrics, ship logs, diaries, journal entries, bumper stickers, graffiti, advertisements, news dispatches, pieces of dialogue or conversation, wedding and other announcements, headlines, captions, summaries, telegrams notes, microfiction, insults — and the list goes on.

From the analysis of these traditional short forms, writers and readers can learn the essential elements of good short writing, everything from word order, ellipses, and slang to levels of formality and informality, details, and parallel structures. These same strategies and more can be used to great effect in the new forms that have emerged with the development of digital technology: e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, blog posts, hyperlinks, website writing and navigation, commentary, feedback loops, updates, headlines, summaries, search engine optimization (phrases that will get you high up on Google searches), Q&A’s, slide shows.

My study of short writing over the centuries reveals that while technologies, genres, and platforms evolve, the purposes of short writing remain intact:

  • To enshrine: gravestones, monuments, tattoos
  • To amuse: jokes, insults, one-lines, snarky comments
  • To explain: museum texts, recipes, instructions
  • To narrate: micro-fiction, live blogs, diaries
  • To alert and inform: text messages, tweets, telegrams, status updates, news bulletins, signage
  • To remember: notes, summaries, lists, ceremonial texts (such as wedding vows)
  • To inspire: proverbs, quotations, prayers, aphorisms
  • To sell: graffiti, adverts, resumes, bumper stickers, T-shirts, dating sites
  • To converse: Q&A, social networks, feedback loops, blogs, speech balloons

You can detect from these partial lists that the craft of short writing applies to all forms of expression, not just the techie ones. Most writers will be as concerned with practical, job-related forms of short writing — from letters of recommendation and complaint to job postings, pitch notes, product descriptions, and classified ads — as they are with positing on social networks.

How short is short? Common sense dictations that length is relative. I am about five feet eleven inches tall, a little above average for American men. That means that I am too large to ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby and too small to play defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

A short story can be more than three thousand words long, which might be the length of a substantial essay or the longest story in Sunday’s New York Times. A three-hundred word piece of writing is short by most standards, but not if you are writing a tweet. Still, for the purposes of this book, three hundred words seems a reasonable boundary for learning how to read, write, and talk about short writing.

I’ve divide this book into two sections, the how and the why of the short writing craft.  The how comprises the rhetorical strategies that make a short text tick. The why reveals the practical uses of short writing over centuries, the ways in which writers use short forms to fulfill their aspirations, from the quotidian to the eternal.

This introduction turns out to be about sixteen hundred words, twice the length needed to print the Ten Commandments, the Hail Mary, the first stanza of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the Emma Lazarus poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow,” and the words recited by Neil Armstrong when he stepped on to the surface of the moon. I guess I’ve got a little more work to do to master the exquisite craft of how to write short — especially in these fast times.

Related: The secrets of how to write short (Time) | Confessions of an editor: a review of “How To Write Short” (Washington Post) | A long, loving look at writing short (Visual Thesaurus)

Related training: News University’s Writing Short training package. Enter the promo code 13SHORT50 for a discount. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013


Are you a happy writer or a sad writer?

Yesterday was a happy day for me as a writer after I received an enthusiastic review of my new book “How to Write Short.”

But what if it had been a negative review, or a hostile review, or an insulting review? I would like to think that it still would have been a happy writing day. But how is that possible? It’s because I’ve finally reached a point where my self-worth as a writer is not determined by the reaction of others: not editors, not readers, not critics.

Of course, such reaction “influences” my feelings, but it does not “determine” them.

To apply some of the principles of cognitive psychology to the writing craft, here are some of our emotional responses that I now think are “cognitive distortions”:

  • “An editor changed my story, proof that I cannot do good work on my own.”
  • I’ve received a dozen rejections on this book manuscript; I must be a terrible writer. Maybe I can get a real estate license.
  • I just received an award for my writing, but that’s only because they don’t realize what a fraud I am.
  • I can’t get any writing done today, so I obviously suck.

It’s a simple equation, actually. How you know something determines how you feel about it. That suggests the antidote to discouragement and despair as a writer is to come to know your craft in a new way.

If you need this kind of therapy, get it cheap. Join us this afternoon for a 3 p.m. ET live chat. Get ready to unload all your writing problems. The doctor is in the house.

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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard

Remembering Elmore Leonard & his writing advice

Assuming that Elmore Leonard would be unimpressed with the imperatives of Search Engine Optimization, I will retitle this essay: “My Dinner with Elmore.”

I’ve read just enough Elmore Leonard to know that he was a brilliant writer with a distinctive American voice. Now that he has passed away, I plan to read more of him, so his words can teach me more about the craft.

Elmore Leonard

I believe it was in March of 2010 that I met the man. The occasion was the Tucson Festival of Books, one of the great literary weekends in America, and I was one of more than 300 authors invited to spread the gospel of reading and writing. An opening event at the University of Arizona brought together hundreds of authors, sponsors, community leaders and volunteers.

Picture me on one of the long buffet lines, hungry for the penne pasta. In front of me are two short men, one of whom looks vaguely familiar with a grey crew cut and owlish glasses. “Where do I know this guy from?” I thought, and then saw his name tag — Elmore Leonard.

“You’re Elmore Leonard,” I blurted, proving only that I could read. I introduced myself.  He said something in return that shocked me, “Oh, you’re the writing guy.” I knew right away that he was not familiar with my work but had noticed my book poster or my place in the program. Still, it was amazing to hear the author of “Get Shorty” say “you’re the writing guy.” If I had had my wits about me I would have responded: “I may be the writing guy, Mr. Leonard, but you are the writing MAN!”

He would have disapproved of my use of that exclamation point. I know this because we spent about 10 minutes on that buffet line in friendly disagreement over the permitted frequency of that mark of punctuation in the work of a serious writer. I knew one of his 10 writing rules prohibited overuse of the exclamation point.

“Keep your exclamation points under control,” he wrote.

What did he mean by “under control?” I wondered. Just as we reached our destination — Italian food — he offered this calculation: “You are allowed only three in every one hundred thousand words of prose.” Hmm. For me that would mean one exclamation in every other book. That would be like making love to your wife once every other year.

I wound up devoting a chapter of “The Glamour of Grammar” to use and abuse of the exclamation point: “After a brief revival during the New Journalism of the 1960s — during which punctuation often looked like an LSD hallucination — the exclamation point was eschewed by serious writers. That little phallic bat and ball exposed itself mostly in children’s literature and romance novels …The secret message broadcast by the likes of Leonard is that the exclamation point reveals a flighty or playful personality.”

To see an example of an author whose exclaimers were out of control, we need look no further than L. Ron Hubbard, science-fiction and adventure author, and founder of Scientology. I picked up a copy of one of his stories “Danger in the Dark” and opened it at random to find this passage of dialogue:

“You fools! Your island god doesn’t live! He never did live, and he never will! Give me this week and I’ll stop this plague! Obey my orders and it will take no more of your people! Tadamona! Damn such a rotten idea!”

OK, for the record that’s seven exclamation points — in one paragraph! There are three more on the page. And five more on the previous page. Why is everyone in this story shouting?

If L. Ron Hubbard had written “Get Shorty,” it would have been titled “Get Shorty!”

It must be said that Elmore Leonard was not preaching abstinence with the exclamation point, just artistic control. He acknowledges “If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

That’s my kind of writing advice: “Don’t overdo it …. unless you know how to overdo it.”

My “dinner with Elmore” ended at the buffet table. The pasta was delicious, by the way.  As was the conversation with a famous writer who cared so much for the craft that his process of writing and revision included his counting exclamation points. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 08, 2013


Tips for writing short and well

With official publication date three weeks away, I am happy to hold in my hand the first copy of my latest book: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.”

I have never had more fun writing a book, and I hope it shows. During a writing chat, I offered a practical preview of the writing strategies described in the book.

I’ve learned a lot about short writing over the last three years and want to share that knowledge widely — especially at a time when good short writing is more in demand than ever before.

Tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, text messages — all these newer forms of expression have brought short writing into the foreground. That said, the Internet is a bottomless pit, a container for some of the longest, emptiest pieces of writing in human history.

In our online chat we:

  • Discussed the best ways to learn good short writing.
  • Analyzed the strategies behind the best short writing.
  • Defined the new and enduring purposes that have always made short writing important.

You can replay the chat here:

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Thursday, June 06, 2013


What writers can learn from a close reading of The Great Gatsby

I just finished reading The Great Gatsby for the sixth time. Divided into my age, that makes about once per decade. Like so many other teens, I was introduced to Gatsby in high school – just about the time the Beatles arrived in America – creating a complete mismatch between my aspirations and my learning. I knew nothing about impossible wealth or hopeless love. The book was lost on me.

With age and five re-readings comes wisdom and insight. I’ll frame the question of this essay this way: “What do I see in the novel now that I was blind to 50 years ago?” What can I learn from the novel as a writer that I can apply in my next story? How can the book become for me — and for you — a mentor text?

I could select countless passages to study, as many bright and shiny things to admire as decorated Gatsby’s mansion.I could have great fun picking at the author’s naming of people, places, and things; or connecting the image clusters related to eyes – from the faded billboard ad for the eye doctor to the owl-eyed man at Gatsby’s funeral; or discussing the archetypal tensions between the promised land of West Egg and the wasteland of “the valley of ashes”; or studying Fitzgerald’s intentional elaborations on classic themes of American literature, patterns of individual and collective renewal that can be traced back to Franklin, Emerson, Whitman, and Cooper.

Instead of those, I’ll focus on the ending, one of the most revered passages in literary history, so celebrated that the recent movie version spells it out on the screen. This passage is three paragraphs long, the 139 words coming from narrator Nick Carraway, who stretches out on the Long Island sand and gazes out at the water:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.  He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning —-So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

We could devote a different essay to the textual elements in this passage, from the tension between “green light” and “blue lawn”; to the choice of ‘orgastic’ (meaning ‘ecstatic’) over ‘orgiastic’; to the creative use of ellipsis and dash; to the double-meaning of ‘borne’ (carried as a burden vs. given life).

Instead, I want to focus on the structural or architectural concerns of the author, the ways in which the patterns of language and imagery create the backbone of a narrative.I would say it’s almost impossible to perceive these patterns in a single reading – and it took me six to understand their full effects.

Where did that ending, that contemplation of the green light come from? Books have endings, but so do chapters. It turns out that the seeds for the ending of Gatsby are planted at the end of  chapter one, where Nick sees Gatsby for the first time:

But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

It’s all here: the dark water, the green light, the end of a dock, the stretching, reaching, and desperate striving — as well as the elusive character of Gatsby.

The title of the novel, “The Great Gatsby,” strikes many as a kind of oxymoron, a clumsy surname for someone great; but it also has the feel of a magician’s name, like the Great Houdini. The word “vanished” seems just right. But should a reader at the end of a 180-page novel be expected to remember that passage on page 21? Maybe. But perhaps the reader could benefit from a reminder.  I found it in the central scene when Gatsby and Daisy are reunited after five years, thanks to the maneuverings of Nick Carraway.

“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock.

His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

It is important to note the repetition of key words over significant spaces of text. The word “vanished” echoes the end of chapter one, Gatsby’s vanishing act.

It just so happened that I was visiting Long Island while I was re-reading this passage. I was riding on the Long Island Railroad towards Manhattan — I couldn’t have been more than 10 miles from the imaginary West Egg — when I noticed that this passage was on page 92. That is, page 92 of a 180 page novel! The physical, structural, virtual center of the novel.

What are we to learn from this? We should learn how finely wrought is a truly great work of art. And how purposeful is the strategic vision of the author. Whatever its effect in Gatsby, it also serves as a writing lesson for the rest of us, whether we are writing, journalism, fiction, memoir, screenplays, or poetry.

The big writing lesson is this:  If you have some very powerful idea or image — something of great interest and importance — introduce it early in the work, call attention to it in the middle, and let it shine at the end. Read more


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Storm damage in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

NPR tornado report reveals the elements of vivid newswriting

Driving to work Tuesday, I heard a four-minute NPR report on the massive tornado destruction in Oklahoma. So vivid was the account — and so visual the writing — that I pulled over to write down the name of the reporter. It was Wade Goodwyn, a Texas reporter who narrates the news with a husky maturity that manages to be both urgent and reassuring.

I was not alone in my admiration. Later that day I received a message from veteran North Carolina journalist Seth Effron.  “It was a transporting description,” he wrote of Goodwyn’s story.

I am about to analyze the elements of Goodwyn’s writing that make his story vivid.  I will cite lines and passages, but you may want to experience the story firsthand before I try to undress it.

Storm damage in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A weak lead-in by David Greene and Steve Inskeep deserves little attention expect to point out a kind of logical flaw:  1) A tornado can wreck a home; 2) it can devastate a whole neighborhood; 3) it can even smash a school.  To which I say, “If it can take out a whole neighborhood, why does it seem strange that it can destroy a school?”

The good stuff begins with Wade Goodwyn’s narration. He dips into a deep supply of cool writing moves to make his work more vivid.

Vivid action

“At 3:01 Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a very rare Tornado Emergency for the Oklahoma City area, a warning that widespread damage and fatalities were likely. A tornado had dropped out of the sky and was bearing down on a suburb south of town.”

It’s a promising lead. A time marker sets the clock ticking for the dramatic action. A “very rare” warning creates a sense of foreboding. Our first look at the tornado is almost cinematic, as if we were seeing the world from its point of view.

Vivid verbs, both active and passive

Storytellers often ascribe evil intent to big storms, which some readers or listeners might find clichéd or unscientific. Goodwyn eventually calls this storm a “monster,” an agent of death and destruction. It is that agency that results in a splendid array of active verbs. Because the tornado controls the action, it also takes control of the vivid verbs.  It “dropped” out of the sky and “grew” more than a mile wide. It “plowed” through town.  It “slammed” into two schools.

But what happens to the victims of that action?  They are rendered appropriately in the passive voice:

  • “The Browns’ house was destroyed…”
  • “dozens of animals were swept up into the horrifying spiral.”
  • children “had been evacuated to a nearby church…”

This style of writing suggests a useful rule of thumb when it comes to verbs: Render agency or power (the doers) with active verbs;  render victims (the receivers) in the passive voice.  It also reveals the paradox that there can be a hell of a lot of activity in passive verbs (as in animals being swept up) — as long as those verbs are vivid.

Vivid voices and senses

I’ve learned from the experts that public radio stories tend to be organized around a combination of direct narration, actualities (what sources or witnesses say), and tracks of natural sound (the warning siren.)  I’ve heard the shorthand “acts and tracks.”

But not all “acts” are created equal.  Notice how Goodwyn allows William Brown to serve as not just an eyewitness but as the story’s sub-narrator.  Brown is a great source, an Iraq War vet who may never have seen this kind of destruction in a war zone. He turns out to be a vivid storyteller himself, using multiple senses for his narration. He sees the horizontal rain, hears the train sounds and the screeching metal, smells the fumes of gasoline.

Vivid metaphors

In general news stories and metaphors don’t seem to mix (unless they are clichés: as in the “budget ax”). There is a sense that a metaphor — a comparison — moves the writing across the line of neutral reporting into opinion. I don’t share that view, especially when the metaphors are used to help the reader see. In this case, the tornado starts out “ropelike,” but turns into a “monster” that “sweeps” and “plows.”

Vivid anecdotes

I think of these as tiny stories that can be embedded into reports or longer stories. The best one here describes the terrible events at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where “one teacher saved three students by shielding them with her body from a car that landed on top of them.”

Vivid images

From the Wizard of Oz to our own time, tornadoes and other natural disasters have been rendered with special cinematic effects. By the way, the cinema didn’t invent the effects we now call cinematic. Ancient prose writers did.  If you don’t believe me, it’s time to re-read The Odyssey. Writers learned how to describe things from a distance (an establishing shot) and in close proximity (a close up). So we encounter the Edwards family standing together on a pile of rubble that once was their house. Then the camera moves closer:  “Molly is covered in pink insulation dust, which glistens like glitter on her skin.” (It’s worth noting that the writer creates some poetic effects with the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds in that last clause.)

A tornado moves past homes in Moore on Monday (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Vivid points of view

One reliable method of storytelling is to help us see the world through the eyes of another.  In this story, for example, we see the tornado through the eyes of the storm chasers, as it expands from something ropelike to a monster engorged with destruction and debris.  The point of view becomes more intimate when the Edwards family escapes the direct path of the storm: “They drove away with the funnel in their rearview mirror.”

Vivid ending

The kicker of the story is just as vivid as the rest, describing a spectacular lightning display in the sky, a cautionary moment that reminds us that “the tornado season is just begun.”

Not long ago, I celebrated a genuine scoop out of Boston that unfolded like a story. Now we have another admirable example of breaking news, rendered by a radio news pro who demonstrates that it’s possible to make deadline prose feel compelling, poetic, and, of course, vivid. Read more

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