Lecture 6: Cuts & Redrafts

Truman Capote once said, "I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil." And so should any author, beyond the most effortlessly exquisite, voice-perfected super stars. (Even then, why would you stop trying?)

At any level, authors are tempted to cut corners. Redrafts hurt. They can be time-consuming and tedious. And especially for travel writers, slumping over the keyboard lacks the glamor of, say, dune buggying in Nairobi or viewing cherry blossoms in Osaka. But you need to persevere, honing your professional chops and also your personal voice. The system will reward "tight," well-researched prose, from repeat assignments to more web traffic, thanks to Google's quality metric. Your work will shine, especially among the dashed-off or crowd-sourced sites out there.

Word processors have made people incredibly lazy, flabby writers, explained travel writing star Edward Readicker-Henderson, an instructor with this program until his June 2016 death. "There's no physical cost for extra words, and cutting and pasting means staying in a rhythmic flow is rare. Even if you're sticking to an assigned word length, odds are, a high percentage of the sentences are pure flabby crap. I always know I'm almost done when the piece is getting shorter, yet I'm adding things – making each sentence work harder, making each word work harder, getting rid of the excess.

Reading out loud helps a lot at this stage, too, because that shows where rhythms have gone out of whack. And if the rhythm is wrong, it means the sentence is wrong, which usually means there's stuff in it that doesn't need to be there.

The very best writing advice I ever got was from the Poet Norman Dubie. He had a flawless eye for flab and excess, and he'd quietly say, "do you need this? I don't need this."

I don't think I've ever written a piece without asking myself that question a couple dozen times. Odds are, if you've asked yourself that a dozen times, at least ten of them, the answer should have been "no, really don't need that". The question usually carries its own answer.

This week we'll explore ways to fine-tune your self-editing skills from microtrims to mechanical overhauls during revisions. Topics include:

Please note: we are headed into the mid-term break. Your fifth project will be due on the 10th. We'll then take October 13th to 19th off. The next lecture will post on the 20th and project #6 should be filed by the 24th. Enjoy the downtime!

Feel the flow
"Vigorous writing is concise," commanded William Strunk in the first edition of the book we all love to hate: The Elements of Style.

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.

But first, let your creativity blare out, unbridled. Ride the waves of inspiration, when they arrive (and paddle when they don't). Pour words on the page. Experiment perhaps with drafts taking radically different approaches, then see what elements might mix together to advance the story and finesse its telling.

Only when the piece's final shape start to emerge should you don your editor's cap. Any sooner and you risk inhibiting your work.

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark advises writers to "cut big" at the start. "Brevity comes from selection," he says in Writing Tools. "A lesson that requires lifting blocks from the work. Begin by pruning big limbs. You can shake out the dead leaves after."

Readicker-Henderson concurs that shortening improves almost any piece. "In my entire life, I've read maybe a dozen things that didn't need shortened," he says. "Maybe a dozen, maybe not quite that many. Even The Great Gatsby could have been tightened a little, and it's a perfect book. It just would have been more perfect with some tightening in two spots."

I tend to think of it like that cliche about sculpting: you start with a block of marble, and then just remove everything that doesn't look like whatever it is you're carving. The trick, of course, is to recognize what is vital and what isn't, and that's a hard task. My own writing thrives on what seems like digression, and it's easy for a reader to wonder why on earth a certain thing is in there, until they come to the ending, when it should all make sense.

And maybe that's the test: would the ending work if a particular thing was taken out? If the answer is yes, then it needs to come out.

Always cut your own work, if possible, rather than allowing a colleague less au fait with the topic to meddle with the manuscript. No one knows the subject more intimately than the author.

That said, fresh eyes often can spot redundancies and irrelevancies better than our own. And a coach, sympathetic editor or writing buddy will approach the work with an innocence more akin to the readers'. So turn to others for recommendations, just not the axe-work itself.

Whatever approach you take, save multiple drafts of your work, rather than overwriting the same file. Not only does this provide backup protection, should anything corrupt, but you preserve some twists and turns, which you may double back to – or grow into separate stories, as we'll explore in more depth below.

 

Everybody hurts
British Author and Literary Critic Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) coined the advice that haunts us all still: "murder your darlings"

Often the writing we love best may fall in the first wave of cuts. Those passages may appeal because they're purpled, indulgent or digressions. In my early drafts, for example, I tend to gnaw upon emotionally difficult passages. Not only do I run the rule of three and tricolon crescendo into the ground, but I repeat the same idea across at least three paragraphs.

I have Readicker-Henderson, my backstop, to thank for spotting that tick. Now that I've recognized the pattern, I've even learned to benefit from it. OK, I have three versions – which works best? Which might recycle into other stories, blog entries or social media posts? (In addition to drafts of each story, I keep a "cuts" file with excised passages, which further encourages repurposing.)

It hurts to set aside material carefully reported and crafted. I ache. Edward ached. You'll ache. It's like an R.E.M song...

But as Michael Stipe sings, "hold on. Everybody hurts. You are not alone."

As journalist and prize-winning poet Miles Cain explained in an Essential Writers interview: "You have to become a good editor of your own work. ‘Writing is re-writing’ is a good rule. Be ready to cut out bits that don’t work, and don’t be precious about it. I used to write music reviews for The Big Issue In The North and they had to be 250 words long. It was brilliant practice – I used to re-write them until I was happy for them to be published, removing the bits that didn’t work" 

After purging passages and sentences, turn to microtrims, shaving a word here, turning a string of prepositions into a possessive there. While the process can be finicky, it can clear a lot of room for denser, richer prose over 1,000 words! And microtrims remain one of the best auto-didactic tools out there. As Travel Writer Anna Melville-James said, "cutting taught me how to write."

Please revisit the intro workshop's Lesson 7: Toning Up, as well as these ten tips for compression.

  1. Make all verbs active (the clown threw the pie, rather than the pie was thrown by the clown), unless you need to express victimization.
  2. Trade helping verbs, participles and gerunds (was quacking) for simple tenses (quacked).
  3. Eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrases. Do we need to know that the cat curled on a blanket near the window in the living room under a sunbeam? Or just that Whiskers basked in a sunbeam? Be alert to those that repeat the obvious (in the film, on the website, in the country where you are traveling, etc).
  4. Use the possessive, rather than "of" clauses. For example: The evil editor of Knitwear Monthly suffers red-pen fever (9 words) becomes Knitwear Monthly's evil editor suffers red-pen fever (7 words).
  5. Replace adverbs with more precise verbs.
  6. Ditto adjectives: soup up your nouns instead.
  7. Ruthlessly root out word and phrase repetition. Often reading the piece aloud (or backward) helps spot terms you've echoed again and again, sometimes to no effect.
  8. "Actually" and "literally" sprinkle our conversations, but rarely need airing in print. Ax 'em. Also cut adjectives that intensify, rather than modify (like just, certainly, entirely, extremely, completely and exactly).
  9. Avoid sentences anchored by pronouns and verbs of being. For example, "it was Mr Portly in the foyer with a bullwhip who murdered her" (13 words) becomes "Mr Portly bullwhipped her to death in the foyer" (9 words). Readers respond better to characters in action, anyway.
  10. Trim restatements (a sultry, sexy fandango)

 

Running diagnostics – steps to stronger prose
Before you bundle your deathless prose off to the editor – or even your writing buddies for previews and proofs – put on your green celluloid visor and do some self-editing.

First, look to the overall shape of the story. Challenge yourself with the following questions.

  • Did I fulfill my assignment or personal goal?
  • Have I embroidered the topic sufficiently?
  • Hit pro and con points to bring balance, if appropriate?
  • Have I explored the bigger picture sufficiently?
  • Did I curate the experience, rather than simply recording it?
  • Have I given readers a reason to care about this topic right now (hello, news peg!) or explored a universal theme that would resonate?
  • Did I weave in quotes from authoritative sources as needed? (Mainstream media editors often require a minimum of three sources per piece.)
  • Does the story have a clear beginning, middle and end? Narrative arc?
  • Have I buried the lede or is the main point clear early on?
  • Does a nut graf bring needed context high in the piece? Have I included all the elements a man from Mars would need to comprehend this story?
  • Does the piece flow logically from point to point? (It often helps to jot down a quick reverse outline on scrap paper – just a list of topics, paired with emotions, if relevant. Examining the arc or topical thread off-screen helps you see it anew and notice problem spots).
  • Have I balanced the interior and exterior journey (if applicable)?
  • Does the place have enough prominence?
  • For first-person pieces, have I constructed my character appropriately and introduced key details high in the piece? For a thematic story, have I introduced any skills or perspective that would give my article more authority?
  • Have I shown a nuanced view or does the story mire in nostalgia or tropes like the noble savage or the insular "Ken and I" approach?
  • What does this piece add to larger dialog about this subject? Does it stand on the shoulders of previous coverage and advance the conversation?
  • Did I provide news readers can use, either in the piece or a sidebar, as appropriate?

 

Examining paragraphs and sentences
Once the story's shape settles into place, take your analysis a step deeper.

  • Does each paragraph have a main point that advances the story?
  • Can I smooth the segues between graphs further? (Reading the piece aloud aids this, especially from a print-out, which forces different perspective. Some stylists record and listen for further interpretation.)
  • Is the lede compelling? If writing for the web, have I included keywords in the opening passage (the first 25 words that generally appear in RSS feeds, content aggregators, search engines and social media links, unless the author or editor writes a specific SEO-friendly, 160-character meta-description instead.)
  • Did I include appropriate details like season, weather, historical highlights, contours of the landscape, compass directions, proximity to a city or airport or landmark, etc?
  • Have I introduced suspense, where appropriate?
  • Is there an inciting incident? Rising action? Blocking action (literal, cultural or philosophical)? A moment of insight? Climax? Denouement?
  • Have I varied the pacing – DJing different sentence lengths and rhythms to keep readers engaged?
  • Do vignettes "show not tell" my larger theme? Build towards a climax or larger point about the subject?
  • Are anecdotes specific enough to the destination or activity? Do they contribute to larger understanding?
  • Do characters populate the tale?
  • Have I given them voice or played puppet master? Was that choice respectful and appropriate for the target publication?
  • Do characters have names (or epithets) and appropriate context? Do I have contact details if an editor presses for them?
  • Have I verified all facts and statistics cited from authoritative resources (not Wikipedia or content mills)?
  • Have I been mindful of stereotypes? Cliches? If used, can they be twisted to add interest?
  • Does the story end with a bang, not a whimper, as the Brits say (in other words, did I reward readers for persevering to the end with an insight or wrap-up? And does the kicker resonate?).
  • Have I made a bigger point about the place than "dear reader, I went there"?
  • Does the ending anchor in the place or theme?

 

Microtrims: flensing words & phrases
Finally, go super macro, examining words and phrases.

  • Can I be more concise?
  • Are my word choices concrete and vivid, rich with specific detail?
  • Is my imagery original and phrased in an arresting fashion?
  • Is it apt for the destination or activity?
  • Have I relied upon adverbs to spice bland verbs of being, rather than active, evocative terms?
  • What percentage of passives does the piece contain? Are they employed to good, purposeful effect?
  • Have I wrangled verb tenses appropriately? Only used gerunds ("ing" words) where needed, rather than flinging them willy nilly all over the place? Do they ever concentrate into a monotonous clump?
  • Did I purge word repetition that doesn't have rhetorical flair?
  • Did any jargon slip in? If it stays, is it defined sufficiently for non-specialists?
  • Are the paragraph — and sentence — starts sufficiently varied?
  • Have I used prepositional clauses judiciously or do they snarl up and slow passages?
  • Do sentences introduce key context early or get muddled behind long introductory subclauses? Have I placed the verbs towards the start, generally?
  • Do lists order words for emphasis, either in terms of content or syllabic weight?
  • Does every word count?

Rewriting can be tough and an intensive process. But it's worth every minute you can devote to it: revisions are among the biggest differences between amateur and professional authors. Good writers keep working and reworking stories until, as Novelist Eric Segal once bemoaned, they're "never done, just abandoned"

And once you've finished all this soul-searching and fumbling for le mot juste, enter the editor... At both ends of the spectrum — emerging author and A-list veteran — expect rewrite requests (only in a mid-career groove or the center of the publication spectrum are you likely to encounter editors that accept manuscripts without massaging 'em). Revisit the intro's lesson nine for rewrite coping and etiquette tips.

 

Technology and good practice
As you write, never throw anything away — and that includes overwritten material. Save layers of drafts, in case you need to revisit any passages or revert to an earlier approach.

Atlantic Author James Somers turned article-tracking up to 11, trapping every version in EtherPad amber for the story The Simple Software That Could – but Probably Won't – Change the Face of Writing. He concluded that Too Much Information saps the authorial spirit and the readers' experiences, however:

A writer explores, and as he explores, he purposely forgets the way he came.

I'm reminded of how the word "essay" derives from the French "essayer," a verb meaning "to try." It was coined in the late 16th century by Michel de Montaigne, in many ways the father of the form. Montaigne wrote as a kind of maieutic exercise, a way of drawing his thoughts into the light of day, of discovering what he wanted to say as he said it.

No need, then, to drop so many breadcrumbs along the way. Especially when such a trail could do more harm than good. Readers could use it to find places where you massaged the facts; they'd be able to see you struggle with simple structural problems; they'd watch, horrified, as you replaced an audacious idea, or character, or construction, with a commonplace.

This is not to mention the legal ramifications (teasing out someone's "intention" just got a whole lot easier...) nor the mere fact that working under this kind of surveillance could drive you crazy with self-consciousness.

I should know: I wrote the article you're now reading using Etherpad's software. You can watch how I fumbled along, start to finish, by clicking the big "play" button on this page. 

So think about preserving part of your process, if not crazy-making totality of it. Some word processing programs allow you to step back to earlier drafts or even microedits like Word's Track Changes and Google Doc's Revision History. But never rely on technology alone for preservation, where creative works are involved. What if the system fails? And it may well: nothing seems to enrage Word faster than a lot of comments on a tracked document. Except spellchecking with multiple languages... or heavy annotations... or, say, turning it on and typing... For all its strengths, Microsoft's popular program crashes with alarming frequency. Don't trust that fragile and sometimes malicious software.

It takes scant seconds to click "save as" and type a new file name ("otters3"). And that records the work at precise spots in its development. I always freeze-frame before reorganizing, for example, or when trying a different tact. Then I can easily back up to another path, if the one I'm on proves fruitless ... or blend several together in yet another version.

I also email myself copies at the end of each work critical session or save a copy to the cloud via Google Docs. This backs up the work off-site, in case of fire, flood, theft or other disasters. Companies like Mozy, DropBox, Backblaze and Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) offer more comprehensive off-site storage, with the added advantage of being able to access files from any terminal (handy on the road or for some lunchtime authoring at a day job).

Don't suffer like Maxine Hong Kingston. In 1991, the Chinese-American author and professor drove home from her father's funeral to discover her Oakland-Berkely neighborhood in flames. The fire destroyed her home and — despite a rescue attempt that almost cost her life — all copies of her fiction manuscript. But Kingston remained a consummate pro. Through this lens, she explored loss and the devastation of war. And the resulting project, The Fifth Book of Peace, even includes a reconstruction of the novel-that-got-away.

Still, why sign up for any heartache? Back up early, often and in at least two locations.

Assignment
Either submit two pitches or redraft one of your features — written for class or not — as a news brief. Max of 600 words either way! Please include the text of the "source feature" in your submission and ensure it's no longer than 2,000 words.

Those of you with more essayistic material may need to dig around for fresh story angles. See my example below of a 1,700-word feature folding into 300- and 375-word briefs.

This process might be uncomfortable. But please soldier through. Editors often approach writers they admire — from publications, social media or pieces submitted on spec, etc. — and ask for a radically repurposed take on a topic. The ability to shift gears and produce "front of the book" newsy pieces can help crack open new markets. Such recycling allows a writer to profit more from in-depth research or extended trips.

In briefs, emphasis tends to shift from insight and bijou phrasing to "just the facts, ma'am," stacked neatly in inverted pyramid format (review details). Breaking news reporters — who compose such material under tight turnarounds, sometimes even in the field — favor simple formulas:

  • lede, incorporating the news peg
  • nut graf: who, what, when, where, why
  • at least 3 quotes or vignettes, ideally exploring the pros and cons of the issue
  • kicker

Try for original sources, but secondary ones are OK for the assignment, provided they're from authoritative outlets, of suitable lengths,* and acknowledge the reporter and outlet that first published the material.

Happy writing!

*less than 25 consecutive words will generally land you in the "fair use" copyright ballpark with an article or book (don't try this, say, with a haiku or flash fiction). You can always mix in paraphrases and partial quotes, should you need to explore a colleague's work in more depth.

Feedback: Amanda


EXAMPLE OF EXTREME COMPRESSION AND RECYCLING

I folded my 1,700-word Alaska Airlines Magazine piece on Samoa into two shorter briefs, detailed below.

The first ran in Hemispheres Magazine, December 2011. Please excuse any typos – the text is my own and unedited. This editor requested an in medias res lede, preferably involving a local, for this 300-word piece. So I contacted the dive shop and re-interviewed one of its boat captain's via email about the dateline shift.

BACK TO THE FUTURE
Captain Chris Peniata powers the dive boat into a lagoon, which flares peacock bright under the tropical sun. His morning runs have gotten earlier, as Samoa adopted Daylight Savings Time. But now the South Pacific nation plans to skip an entire day (December 30th), as it reroutes the International Dateline along its eastern flank.

Manono Girl with woven plateTwelve decades ago, Samoa hopscotched the other direction to trade more smoothly with the United States. Visitors took advantage, toasting “the world’s last sunset” with rum-filled coconuts. Some even raced across the dateline for second helpings of special calendar pages, like birthdays or anniversaries.

That loophole closes soon, as Samoa redraws the map, aligning with Asia, Australia and New Zealand. For similar reasons, it shifted from US-style right-hand drive to British-Empirey left in 2009. (In the last 40 years, Myanmar is the only other country to do-si-do like this – following a wizard’s advice.)

But only 10 roads pierce the jungle, beaches and lava flows of Samoa, a roughly Rhode-Island-sized archipelago. So everyone just chunked over the new speed bumps, then smiled and waved at any mix-ups. After all, that’s Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way), says Kat Kupsch, Peniata’s Australian boss at Aqua Samoa.

“Samoans take everything in stride. They 'soldier on,' sometimes in grueling circumstances, as was clearly seen after the tsunami. They are a tough race!”

They endure … but they don’t always enthuse. Captain Peniata says: “He changes the road, the time and now the date. I think there is something wrong with the Prime Minister!"

Rest assured: tourists won’t be on the receiving end of any frustrations. Fa’a Samoa dictates, “greeting a guest should be like the joy of the birds greeting dawn.” And in 2012, the nation will have a head start, as one of the first to see the sunrise.

That’s quite a fitting present for Samoa’s 50th birthday … even if it can only celebrate once. – AMANDA CASTLEMAN

 

Slightly longer at 375 words, this second FOB piece rolled out in travelgirl magazine's winter issue. Again the text below is my original, so please excuse any typos!

The World’s Last Sundowner Cocktail

Full Body TattooBy Amanda Castleman

Just 20 miles east of the International Dateline, Samoa has been the sunset’s final outpost for 119 years. Raise a rum-filled coconut there and toast the era’s end, as the nation shifts time zones and loses its sundowner status.

The Polynesian country will leap into the future — skipping December 30, 2011, entirely — so that its time will better align with trade partners in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Luckily Samoa has more to offer than cocktail-hour bragging rights. As the nation approaches its 50th anniversary in 2012, it draws visitors to jump off waterfalls, spy flying foxes in giant banyan trees and salute the mountaintop tomb of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. Those who stay through the weekend will probably be invited for a Sunday feast cooked in a Polynesian hot-rock oven (umu): dishes likely to include octopus, breadfruit, and taro leaves with coconut cream. Samoa takes its hospitality — and dining — very seriously.

Turquoise water, sugar-white beaches and thatched open-air pavilions add to its allure. Not to mention the pigs, chickens and children ambling across the country’s ten roads.

Stormy dusk on UpoluThe archipelago has bounced back remarkably from the 2009 tsunami. On ‘Upolu’s scenic south flank, Sinalei Reef Resort leapt to four stars, thanks to renovations, while the hard-hit Taufua Beach Fales climbed to No. 7 on Lonely Planet’s Ten Incredible Tropical Paradises for 2010.

Smaller than Rhode Island, the English-speaking country attracts adventurers, eco-tourists, training athletes and body-art aficionados, especially for the annual tattoo festival. An 800-seat convention center is scheduled to open soon, and should draw businesspeople eager to shuck their suits after getting their work done in order to dive, navigate sinkhole passages and immerse in Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way of life).

Happily, that way of life involves one of the world’s warmest welcomes, as Samoans believe “greeting a guest should be like the joy of the birds greeting dawn.”

And from 2012 onward, they’ll get a head start on that, as their country becomes one of the first to see the sunrise, along with neighboring Tonga and Kiribati.