Friday, March 15, 2013

Word Economy: Cutting to the Skeleton


Last week’s post about The Sea Bat, an old film from 1930, touched upon today’s topic: brevity. Each writer marketing or reviewing the film did so with few words, and there is great value is practicing brevity. It sharpens the mind, forcing us to select what is most important, absolutely essential. Brevity also requires that we play with language, choosing the very best word to serve.

One teacher, Maurice Sagoff, understood the fun and value in brevity, testing his students to write very short summaries of works they’d studied, usually in poetic form. His book, ShrinkLits (Workman Publishing, New York, 1980), explains what students must do and for what purposes.

I adapted ShrinkLits for my own classroom, requiring that students reduce complex works to the seventeen-syllable Haiku form. Doing so tested their understanding of the most significant characters, events, symbols, and ideas.

For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet inspires and challenges us. It's so rich and complex. How could anyone reduce it to seventeen syllables? Well . . .

·      Grief o’erwrought. Death sought. / Toxic deeds at Elsinore / Duty forsworn, Vows broke
·      Dad dies. Uncle crowned. / Mother a tart. Son so smart. / Treason. Duels. Death.
·      Ominous winds blow / Threats from near, far and within / Hamlet sacrificed

Each haiku shrinklit captures essential ingredients and overall outcomes. Each requires considering some words, dismissing them as unsuitable for their syllable count, and choosing better ones, words with the proper syllable count.

Such play is also work. It challenges writers never to accept one phrase as the only phrase. It inspires writers to think about topics from new perspectives. So when the spigot refuses to free new ideas for you or when casting about for something to write, practice the shrinklit to prime that pump and get ideas flowing once more.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Read another teacher’s use of Sagoff’s ShrinkLit at http://www.mitchellteachers. net/MrsMitchell/PDFFiles/2011-2012/ShrinklitPoem.pdf, then use the one-page worksheet to have some fun with Shrinklit.