August 3, 2005

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

I vividly remember my reaction the first time I read this famous quote by Ernest Hemingway.

“Huh?” I said.

I didn’t get it. You can leave things out and the reader will still get them? It made no sense.

Later, I found out there was a line missing from the quote. “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Ohhh, I get it now, Ernie.  

Reporters always gather more information than they need. By the time we’ve finished a 15-inch story or a 60-second broadcast package, we may have interviewed a dozen people, read through sheaves of reports, press releases and statements, pored over a stack of clips.

And then, of course, we agonize about it. “I don’t know what to cut. It’s all great stuff,” we moan when our editor says, “keep it short,” or the desk sends word to “trim by a third.”

What we’ve forgotten, as I first learned from writing coach Don Murray, is that we write best from “an overabundance of material.”

Murray kept a large trash can by his desk when he was freelancing for Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and other so-called “slick” magazines of the 1960s. He noticed that when the trash can overflowed with discarded material, the stories were better. They were worse if he found himself diving in to find something — anything — to fill space.

That’s because great writing, as Hemingway and Murray know — and I’ve belatedly come to accept — reflects the “iceberg theory.”

When the lookouts on the Titanic sounded the alarm, “Iceberg right ahead,” on April 14, 1912, what they feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic but the mountain beneath. That’s because only about one-eighth of an iceberg floats above the water.

The same principle holds in writing. What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.

As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.
Alix Freedman, an assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, calls on another metaphor to make the case. Speaking to participants at a Poynter seminar on enterprise reporting in 2001, Freedman recalled an editor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”

That’s why the Pulitzer Prize-winner catalogs her material on a yellow sheet of paper that lists all the quotes, examples, and themes she’s uncovered in her reporting. Each gets a grade. Only those marked “A” make it into print.

Her aim, she says, is to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example. Not just a quote but a quote on point.”

Freedman makes these decisions before she writes. I’m more likely to rely on the iceberg at the end of the process, during revision.

Get Me Rewrite: The Craft of Revision,” my new course on NewsU produced with Casey Frechette, offers a list of strategies to help writers overcome the “first-draft culture” that dooms so much journalism to mediocrity. Write early. Read aloud. Diagnose, then treat.

I realize we’ve got to add another. “Look out for icebergs.”

Too often, we sink our stories with information we can’t bear to part with, even if it’s not relevant. (“But I spent two hours interviewing the Assistant Under Secretary of State for Non-Essential Information,” we wail. “It took me six months to FOIA that report.” “I need four paragraphs to describe that room.”)

Not true. What the reader should see is the glistening tip of a mass of information that never breaks the surface, but which allows the writer to select the material that is most telling.

The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.

It’s a paradox, one of many contradictions that lie in the writer’s path.

But we ignore it at our peril.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

More News

Back to News