I EDIT MY COPY TOO MUCH. There, I’ve said it. It isn’t fashionable to admit, but I must unburden myself at long last.
Let others sweat the big stuff, feverishly seeking bolder and ballsier concepts as they pace around war rooms with similarly engaged creative partners. Me, I agonize in solitude over widows and orphans and line breaks. I sneak my submitted copy off the traffic manager’s desk for another look. At a time in my life when I should be able to claim mastery over my work, I still struggle to be simple -- finding the short sharp words that should come naturally, instead of longer, more passive ones.
Well, better scribes than I struggle too. A long time ago I saw this from Calvin Trillin, as he blogged about the challenges of working at Time Magazine:
At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil -- changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red -- the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened -- “Green seven” or “Green twelve.”
I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games -- I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble -- but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story -- a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact -- was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.
Preach on, brother. But I'm not Calvin Trillin, so I end up torturing myself into false economies, degrading perfectly good copy into something that just sounds odd -- but it is shorter, no doubt about that.
Over the years I have tried to fight my windbag tendencies with a personal “25 percent rule.” It seems like I always write four sentences or four bullets, when experience and the great speeches of history show that three is a far better number. Hell, three is magic. In rhetoric, it’s called a tricolon. You know -- of the people, by the people, for the people. So I often run a quick check of my copy for that fourth thing, sprouting up like crabgrass, then prune it away with a certain reluctance.
Sometimes the victory is pyrrhic. I look at the copy and lament the loss of flow, of spontaneity, of the sloppy creative abandon that is endearing in a lot of work these days. But there are always trade-offs … and they are unrelenting. Writing is like that.
Small wonder that Hemingway once took a long look at a blank page and gave it a warrior’s tribute. He called it The White Bull -- paper that has no words on it. As for paper with too many words? I guess I’d call it The Black Hydra. You can never cut ‘em away very easily. | DC |