Do you think of “white space” as a topic important only to visual artists? One lesson I took from an all-day Poynter seminar, “Write Your Heart Out, Washington,” was that white space matters to every writer.
White space, quite simply, is the part of the page without text. Writers aren’t taught to view their prose as a visual art. Having worked in print layout in the past, I’ve labored to find the right aesthetic pairing of columns of text with visual elements. But I haven’t always structured my writing to maximize visual effect.
Enter Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, author of more than a dozen books on writing, most recently Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. “White space is the most powerful form of punctuation,” said the author who includes an exclamation point after the first word in the title of his latest book. “Without it, the text looks dense and impenetrable.”
“It is the paragraph that creates white space on the page,” Clark said. This is obvious, but worth reflection. In a sentence the most emphasis falls on the last word. In a paragraph, the most emphasis falls on the last word of the last paragraph, and thus is a critically important moment in the prose.” Noting the British refer to a period as a “full stop,” Clark said, “If the period is a stop sign, the paragraph break is a stoplight.”
As a journalist I was taught to keep my paragraphs nice and short, because when they’re crammed into thin columns a very long one can indeed seem impenetrable. Now that I’m studying the personal essay, I’m learning that my habit of automatically hitting the enter key every few lines is, at best, misguided. The writers in my MFA workshop, and my instructor, have been puzzled by my paragraph breaks, which at times seemed arbitrary.
That’s because they were.
Clark taught me that even newspaper journalists should make use of white space. He shared a story from Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas French, a feature story titled “Elegy for the king and queen” from the St. Petersburg Times that French has now expanded into a book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. If you click on the link to the “Elegy” story above, you’ll see how French made use of not just paragraph breaks. His first paragraph is a mere seven words long. The second is longer, ending on a strong tease. The third is longer still, landing on a punch line. The fourth is a bit shorter, and ends with a moving passage. The fifth? It conveys the real thrust of the story, why this chimp is worthy of a profile. It ends with the shortest sentence in the passage — the most powerful sentence — and is followed by a three-asterisk hard break.
Dialogue, of course, is one way to create white space, although Clark was quick to point out the difference between dialogue and quotes, with the latter merely a repetition of what was said, and the former a selection of what was said that advances the story. Choose your quotes wisely, he cautioned.
I was struck by the recurrence of discussion of white space in the last panel, featuring Pulitzer Prize winning columnists Kathleen Parker and Eugene Robinson, both of whom I have the pleasure of reading in my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. Robinson said he works with white space with each column, something he learned years ago as a city desk editor. Struggling with a reporter’s story that was overly long and overly dull, Robinson realized part of the problem was that every paragraph was exactly the same length. Parker added that she tends to include at least one one-sentence paragraph in each 750-word column. She said she views a column as a musical work, and that sentence serves as a “staccato.”
(You are lucky I was able to write down anything Kathleen Parker said, transfixed as I was merely by being in her presence. I’m not usually a sucker for blondes, and I’m not suggesting any political leanings here, but I have a mad crush on that woman. So smart. So funny. So beautiful. Yes, my wife knows of my crush. Yes, she tolerates it.)
Do you take white space into consideration in your writing? How do you make use of it?