Bits + Pieces on Making Functional Writing

You may know that I’ve lately been spending my days at Passages Bookshop. My repertoire there includes:

sell­ing books, chat­ting with cus­tomers, read­ing, think­ing while star­ing into space, pick­ing out books to read later, con­sid­er­ing visual art, writ­ing post­cards, and play­ing with the toys and ephemera that are hid­den in an old wooden card cat­a­log cab­i­net

The shop has quite a selection of letters and words: flashcards, die cuts, even pieces of a kind of lexical game! I couldn’t resist putting this together yesterday:

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Playing with letters gave me some space to think about making writing that works, especially about how my poetry practice informs the work I do for clients. The afternoon spawned the following bits + pieces:


Every piece of writ­ing is made up of mov­able parts. It is sur­pris­ingly easy to for­get that we can delin­eate and rotate pieces of every­thing we write. In this case (and in the con­text of my poetry) the let­ters them­selves are lit­er­ally sep­a­rate objects. Even if you’re work­ing on a 50-page PDF, don’t for­get that you can make your intro­duc­tion into your end­ing, or that your favorite sen­tence might serve you bet­ter in a dif­fer­ent spot.

In a fin­ished piece, each ele­ment is nec­es­sary. The com­po­nents fit together to give writ­ing mean­ing and tone, both of which are key. This doesn’t mean that some­thing can’t be long or extrav­a­gant, but that it should be a con­scious deci­sion. I am a stronger edi­tor for hav­ing stud­ied poetry, wherein things as small as line breaks are decided upon with grave inten­tion. Poets get weird, but they do it on pur­pose. I very much admire Ronald John­son, whose hand-print func­tioned as an entire sec­tion of his epic poem ARK. And it works beau­ti­fully! Maybe what your mem­oir or web­site copy needs is some­thing totally unex­pected.

Ronald John­son; ARK, Beam 18

Sim­ple can be win­ning. Once you’ve pinned down the nec­es­sary parts of what you’re writ­ing, it might seem as if there’s not much left. Don’t get scared! A pri­mary use of writ­ing is the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of our thoughts or ideas. Too many words can actu­ally inhibit our reader’s abil­ity to get our mes­sage.

Rep­e­ti­tion can be trans­for­ma­tive. In a famous act of min­i­mal­ism, poet Aram Saroyan turned a word into a poem by adding a sim­ple rep­e­ti­tion in the cen­ter. No mat­ter your feel­ings about one-word poems, reit­er­a­tion can be a great styl­is­tic or rhetor­i­cal tool when it is used with care. If you have great copy, make the most out of it.

ASA001 Aram Saroyan; <em>Lighght; </em>1989; Silkscreen; 29.5 x 26.5 inches; Edition AP1 of 150+7AP; Signed and dated; Inv# ASA001.AP1

Aram Saroyan; Lighght; 1989; Silkscreen


Tips and indications for “writing well” often contradict themselves. It’s tricky, and decisions really come down to what feels right. There is no magic fix, but I hope these bits + pieces give you something to think about if you’re feeling stuck.