Hemingway for the Holocaust

Sometimes it only takes ten pages to tell a huge story.

Cynthia Ozick’s story “The Shawl” conveys the grief, pain and drama of the Holocaust in as many pages. Thousands of pages have been written on the subject; Ozick takes ten.

The short sentences and lack of dialogue give the story a Hemingway-esque, detached feel, but one can sense the current of emotion under the words.

As Ozick, Hemingway and others have proven, understatement can be the most effective way to communicate, especially in an age when words are being used, overused and abused in rhetoric and media.

The plethora of 250-word assignments I’ve been writing this week have reminded me how easy it is to vomit hundreds of words onto a page when really a choice five or ten would convey the message more effectively and elegantly.

Of course this isn’t a new idea; George Orwell and many others have said it, Hemingway and Ozick illustrate it, but it’s easy to forget. “The Shawl” is a good reminder that the strongest messages are often given in as few words as possible.

As media shifts towards the 24-hour news cycle and fresh news content is available for viewing every few minutes somewhere on the Web, readers will have less and less patience with verbose stories in any form. Elegance and precision in word choice are essential skills in communicating effectively in a fast-food era.

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