Skip to content
Nov 7 / King Kaufman

How that one perfect word can make even a short piece shine

In a live chat on a few months ago, Roy Peter Clark, one of the best writing teachers in the business, made a mention of the musical concept of “grace notes” as a way to make short writing shine.

Clark is the author of many books on writing. His latest is “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” For purposes of the book, “short” means up to 300 words, but his advice can be useful however you define “short.” Bleacher Report values concision, so for us a good definition of writing “short” would be: As short as the piece can be while saying what it needs to say.

In the chat, a commenter was asking about how to write effectively in a tweet. That’s short!

Comment From Divya Kumar: Do you have any tips on how to get better at wit, focus and polish while tweeting things as they unfold?

Roy Peter Clark: Divya, in music there is something called a “grace note.” As you play one note on the piano, you lightly flick the note next to it. It is not necessary to the melody, but is often considered a lovely decoration. One of the things that contributes to both wit and polish is to select just one special word that stands out from the rest, that gives a sense that the writer really cares.

Here’s a video that gives a more thorough explanation of what grace notes are in music.

I like what Clark’s saying here, but I actually don’t like his use of the term “grace note” because that denotes something extra, ornamental.

It’s a dangerous game to start decorating your writing with “ornamental” words. That way lies the path to purple prose, to flowery, wordy gunk that’s the exact opposite of concision.

But I do love the idea of using “just one special word that stands out from the rest, that gives a sense that the writer really cares.” Even in a short, straightforward piece, if you can find a way of saying something that’s a little different, that shows some thought and some wit, it can give even a simple piece a bit of shine.