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The Right Details

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 11:39 PM

A masterful intertwining of content and language serves author, subject, and readers well.

By Peter Jacobi

I'm starting off this month with another person's lead, a long paragraph. Please read it with care; if you do, I'm sure you'll gain pleasure from the reading.

"On a snowy morning in February, Violette Verdy walked into a well-lit rehearsal studio seven stories above Broadway. At 81, the former ballerina, best known for her 20-year collaboration with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, is a striking woman, petite and vivacious, with eyes the color of stormy seas. ('My mother said they change with the weather,' she told me.). She wore her signature work attire: matching tights, knee-length skirt, and top, all in the same shade of dark blue, and complemented by a pair of bright-red ballet flats. If one looked closely, one might have noticed that her shoes were held in place not by elastic or ribbons, but by matching rubber bands, the kind shelved next to the paper clips at Staples. Verdy displays the pragmatism of someone who is utterly comfortable in her skin."

I found that beginning and all the splendid paragraphs that follow it in the August 2015 issue of The Nation. Marina Harss, a freelance dance writer with numerous credits in top-tier publications, authored the piece. And since I know Violette and know about her, I can vouch for what Harss has put together. The writing is effective. The reporting is thorough. The selection of what to use and what she chose to leave out proves to me that the article honors both the subject and the reader.

Winning Combination

The combination of language fluency, sufficiency and thorough grasp of material, and shrewd packaging is unbeatable. Harss has provided that combination. The opening paragraph exemplifies it, and the reason for her success comes from the high quality of her reporting and researching, how professionally she did her information gathering, her collecting of details.

A Lead That Passes the Test of Detail

It is details that I want to stress. More than once during the many years I've written this column, I've argued that no matter how good your writing, you will falter if you fail the test of detail. Whether you are dealing with fiction or nonfiction or poetry, your composition gets the job done only if you enrich the reader with both how and what, the best writing you are capable of (HOW), along with the most enticing information you can include (WHAT).

Take another look at the article's first paragraph. The opening sentence gives you a human subject engaged in an action, good for a starter and strengthened by the detail of seven flights undertaken and done, a task all too many of us would find taxing. Immediately thereafter, you tell me that the climber's conquest comes when she is 81, more amazing. But then we come to the fact that she was a ballerina, suggesting that she has led the life of an athlete and that she danced all those years for a master choreographer, George Balanchine, at one of the world's premier dance companies, meaning, of course, she's watched her health, thereby triumphing in a stressful vocation in a stressful environment.

In the meanwhile, I'm discovering that she is a "striking woman," a good adjective but made far more so by two added adjectives, one about size ("petite"), the other about personality ("vivacious"). That fruitful sentence continues to be fruitful when we learn next of her "eyes the color of stormy seas," wonderfully creative but also true; I've looked into them. Harss embellishes with a quote, Verdy's own about how her mother lovingly described those eyes.

We come next to her attire, certainly not of the kind we might expect a diva to wear and, therefore, reasoning that her fame in the world of ballet has not gone to her head. Famous she is; a diva she is not. The clothing specifics are precise, this to emphasize the incongruity. And, oh my, her shoes are held together by rubber bands, "matching" rubber bands, the sort you can buy at Staples. In all, in an initial summary, we have been introduced to a woman "utterly comfortable in her skin."

Think about how much you've learned from that lead paragraph. Harss has put together an informative and lively package, with not a word improperly selected or placed. It is bulging with information and designed for easy shipping and opening.

Continuing with the Right Details

Granted, there's not much action in that first paragraph, but consider how much you've learned about Violette Verdy, how that copy has prepared you for what's to come. The richness of detail leads so comfortably to the next paragraph, which switches to action, to things happening. The follow-up material flowingly moves the story forward: "As soon as she entered the room, Verdy was surrounded by friends and admirers. Some had shared the stage with her or watched from the wings during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when she was one of New York City Ballet's most celebrated dancers in what she calls the '19th century and a half' repertory, by which she means ballets that make reference to 19th-century themes and traditions while applying the innovations and refinements of 20th-century technique. Verdy had a word for each person who approached her. Hers is an irrepressible friendliness."

We find out that she's been asked to show a couple of current New York City Ballet dancers assigned to a ballet in which she starred how to handle the intricacies and spirit of the choreography. Her lesson is to be taped for the company's archives and made available to those who will dance the roles in future generations. Author Harss will detail what happened during that master lesson, step by step, moment for moment. She will continue to insert background material (events from Verdy's life). The report makes for a terrific piece, made so by the writer's way with words and by her wisdom in choosing the right details, the how and the what.

And near the end, Harss will clarify the ballerina's individuality as woman and dancer: "Like the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism she has quietly practiced since the '60s, ballet, for Verdy, is a spiritual pursuit. 'I feel the obligation to make people consider that this is not just a physical activity, a physical technique, but that it points to something higher,' she told me. This belief bound her to Balanchine, in whom she intuited a similar idealism. 'If you're going to have a guru in the world,' she added, 'Mr. B was it.'"

The masterful intertwining of content and language serves author Marina Harss well, subject Violette Verdy well, and consuming readers well. Serving all should be your goal.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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