“ballet in a telephone booth”


“… it was as a columnist that Mr. Baker made his name. Based at first in Washington, he recalled that he had to feel his way in the new genre of spoof and jape. ‘Nobody knew what the column was going to be,” he told the writer Nora Ephron. “I didn’t. The Times didn’t.’

“But soon he was doing what he called his ‘ballet in a telephone booth,’ creating in the confined space of 750 words satirical dialogues, parodies and burlesques of politicians and the whirling capital circus. …”

— “Russell Baker, Pulitzer-Winning Times Columnist and Humorist, Dies at 93,” By Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times, January 22, 2019



I think I know what Russell Baker meant (I grieve for his passing) by “ballet in a telephone booth”: He meant writing a compelling, funny, readable, coherent op-ed piece within the confines, so to speak, of a strict word limit of 750 words.

In the days of totally printed publications, word limits, the equivalent of what constitutes space limitations, were particularly important. The number of pages in a newspaper or magazine was more of less fixed and there had to be lots of room for advertising.

I experienced this. I worked for a while as an intern and, subsequently, a freelancer on a daily metropolitan newspaper. And, I also wrote reference book entries as a freelancer. The length of the reference book articles was strictly set, with some variation among entries depending upon how important the subject of the entry (article) was.

Later, I was a freelance book reviewer, Same thing. There was strict word limit. In the case of a newspaper, it was usually something like 600 or 750 words. My review in the Indianapolis Star of Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life, a book over 1,000 pages long, was 600 words long (the review, that is).



In my post

“the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)”

the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)

I wrote that a professional writer has “to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and … to ‘shoehorn’ in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space.”
The key idea here, the required skill — it’s one that sets professionals apart from amateurs — is what Russell Baker termed a “ballet in a telephone booth.” His coinage gets across the idea of skill or grace under pressure: the pressure being the constraints of a space limitation. It’s the same thing I meant by shoehorning in ideas and information.

One wants to be clear and concise. One has to cover the subject. Yet one doesn’t want to be dull. The writer wants the piece to be readable, and to have its own slant or edge: an authorial voice, a tone.



Here are two examples of book reviews of mine where I achieved this — if I may say so — admirably.


rws review of edwin o’connor bio by charles f. duffy

Roger W. Smith, review of A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor by Charles F. Duffy, The New York Sun, January 8, 2004


Roger W. Smith, review of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century by Eric Carl Link, Dreiser Studies, winter 2004



What I would say about these book reviews — in praise of myself, and in the interests of demonstrating elements of good writing — is that they were written with strict requirements regarding length and, to some extent, a tone suitable for the type of publication and its readership. Yet, within these parameters, there is a clear authorial voice (mine), a definite slant. (One can see that a “critical thinking cap” is being worn.) And, in addition, interesting sidelights or digressions and pieces of information as well as related ideas, writings, or topics that occurred to me, which the reader might not have thought of, but are thought provoking, are worked in, all within the tight confines that any op-ed writer or book reviewer faces.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

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