Craft Lesson: The Power of Omission

Craft Lessons

When a lookout on the Titanic sounded the alarm, “Iceberg right ahead,” on April 14, 1912, what he 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-tenth of an iceberg pierces the water’s surface.

The same principle—the theory of omission, or what Ernest Hemingway called ”the iceberg” theory—holds true in news writing. 

Effective journalists always gather more information than they need. By the time you’ve finished a 15-inch story or a 60-second broadcast package, you may have interviewed half a dozen people and pored over a stack of background materials, including sheaves of reports, press releases, statements, and internet research. 

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. “I need four paragraphs to describe that room.”

When our editor says, “keep it short,” or the copy desk sends word to “trim by a third,” we moan. “I don’t know what to cut. It’s all great stuff.” 

Stephen Buckley, who shone as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, told me, “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story, so I overreport. Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”

“You can’t ever overdo it,” I replied. “You can’t overreport or research too much. But you can under think. You can under plan. You can under revise.”

WHAT LIES BENEATH

What makes a powerful story is all the work that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many journalists fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest power: making every word count.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Writers write best with an overabundance of material, as my mentor, Don Murray taught me.

Alix Freedman always kept in mind her Wall Street Journal editor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”

That’s why the investigative reporter cataloged her reporting on a legal pad where she listed quotes, examples, statistics and themes she uncovered in her reporting.

Each got a grade. Only those marked “A” made it into print. Freedman’s aim was to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example,” she said. Not just a quote but “a quote on point.”

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

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

But you ignore it at your peril.

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