Writing with Accuracy, Concision, and Precision
By Kristen Thompson, Associate Coordinator, Bluegrass Writers Studio
Part of what defines me as a writer is to push each poem to the extreme and rarely do the same thing twice. My goal is to present an idea in the best possible form, so that putting it in any other form would lessen it. A poem about coming ashore in Miami should be right-justified, with waves of line length off to the left, because that’s the way the ocean meets the city: lapping east to west. A poem about Pablo Neruda should be a sonnet, unrhymed, with a great turn at the end, because that was the form he mastered. It feels like using a tool the way it was meant to be used. Separating the shore from Miami or the sonnet from Neruda would deny a whole level of meaning. It would be as unsatisfying as trying to drive in a nail with the handle of a screwdriver because you’re too lazy to get the hammer from the next room.
Titles, too, should be intrinsic to the poem’s value. Don’t give me a poem entitled “Clipper Ships” with the first line “Clipper ships” (Little Man Tate reference). And if you write a movie called “Her,” you’d better make it very, very good. Forgive me for switching to movies here, but the pinnacle of amazing titling, for me, is “Cast Away.” Everyone says “castaway,” as in, a guy on an island who survives a crash, and most people are satisfied with that. It works for the masses. But there’s a gut-kicker in the two word title (Spoiler alert:) The guy does everything he can to get back to his wife, and she’s remarried with a kid. That one space in the title multiplies the tragedy by a billion. He was. Cast. Away.
Throwing out the tissues and moving back to academic concerns, there are three scientific words that a lot of people lump together, that have different meanings, all of them important to me as a writer. They are: concision, precision, and accuracy. Accuracy is the easiest to understand. In a dart game, it’s hitting the bull’s-eye when you aim for it. In journalism, it’s getting the facts right, but in poetry it’s more the feeling that what you wanted to convey has absolutely been conveyed. You’ve hit the nail on the head. With the hammer.
Then consider concision. Wikipedia’s lengthy definition of concision is, “the art and practice of using no more words than necessary to convey an idea. It aims to improve the effectiveness of communication by eliminating redundancy without omitting important information.” More concisely, it means “frugal, accurate composition.” That’s part of the delight of being a poet – recognizing that you can hang an entire landscape, or portrait, on that one nail. You can take an image like “she sat with her head hanging and her eyes low” and compress it into “she sulked.” Or was it that “she cowered”? When you pick the one that’s accurate, and there’s nothing extra, that’s concision. Hitting the bull's-eye dead center.
Precision may be the hardest to explain. We know that accuracy is hitting the bull’s-eye. Hitting it with all three darts is precision. Hitting the lamp over the scoreboard with all three darts is also precision. It means that you are consistent, that each of your throws makes it to the same place. Throwing a dart in the bartender’s arm three times in a row? Precise! Unfortunately, not very accurate. Unless that’s where you were aiming.
All of these concerns combine for me into a passion to build emotionally accurate poems, from all the concise mots justes – with the right order, placement, spacing, line breaks, punctuation, capitalization, and repetition. They should be so delicate that anything added or taken away woud be vandalism. Because when someone pauses to read your work – ponders it even - their questions should be met with answers that are already in the poem. Why is this poem in the form of a bulleted list? Because it’s about gun control. Why is it centered? Because neither the far left nor the far right is fully justified.
Published on June 12, 2014