Here, in this image, is something that you don’t often see—something, I’ve found, that writing students sometimes need to see, in order to believe it even exists: proof that, in creating art, everything counts.

The screenshot captures the 3:07 mark in a YouTube clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn2WEoBFOe8) from Original Cast Album: Company, D. A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary about the recording sessions for the Broadway musical Company. The song in this clip is “Another Hundred People,” a typically tongue-twisting and emotion-wringing composition from Stephen Sondheim, and Pamela Myers has given it her all.

Almost.

What she’s given, the song’s composer and lyricist suspects, is not quite her all. It’s her all, minus one note. At the end of the take, Sondheim approaches Myers.

She’s changed something, he says, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands, and rubbing them some more. “And I have a feeling that I haven’t noticed. And you’ve been doing it for weeks.” He half-sings, half-hums the section to himself. When he opens his eyes, an assistant places a copy of the score in his hands, and he immediately knows which passage to point to. Myers shuffles to his side for a better look.

“It’s ‘by the rusty fountains,’” he says, identifying the proximity of the mistake. “Let me hear you do this.” He prompts her: “Caaaan…”

“…can find each other—” Myers sings, picking up the cue. Sondheim, while keeping his eyes on the score, tilts his head and cups one ear. Myers continues: “—in the crowded streets and the guarded parks, by the—“

“Yeah.” Sondheim has heard enough.

“—rusty fountains—“

Sondheim cuts her off. “You’re doing an A there.”

Beat.

“Oh, yeah.”

“It used to be an F sharp,” Sondheim says, “and it’s gradually become an A.”

Myers gives a nervous laugh. Then Sondheim begins singing, and Myers joins him: “—find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks”—breath—“by the rusty fountains.”

By: not A; F sharp.

Sometimes when I’m teaching, I’ll use this clip as part of a lesson that I think of as “Everything Counts.”

“Everything counts in art,” I say. “And writing is no exception. Every choice. Every word, every piece of punctuation, every paragraph break. Everything. Everything is a choice, and everything needs to be there for a reason.”

The looks I get from students at this point generally reflect some level of doubt: You’re exaggerating, surely. Or: By ‘everything,’ you can’t actually mean everything.

Everything,” I repeat. Then I call up the clip: “Just watch.”

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Richard Panek

Richard Panek's latest book is The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). A Guggenheim Fellow in science writing, he is also the author of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, which received the 2012 Science Communication award from the American Institute of Physics. He was also the co-author, with Temple Grandin, of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, a New York Times best-seller and the recipient of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2013. He also wrote the National Geographic giant-format movie Robots 3D. His educational and professional background is in both journalism and fiction, disciplines he combines in trying to illuminate the history and philosophy of science even for readers who, like himself before he begins his research, would know little or nothing about the topic at hand.

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