Watching My Words: A Writer Learns to Trim the Fat

July 29, 2019 § 7 Comments


JArlanby Jonathan Arlan

Once, in a poetry workshop I took in college, a student likened the writing process, in a good way, to a natural disaster. “It’s like a huge tornado,” he said. “Once I get sucked up inside, I just write and write and write.”

“Yeah,” swooned another girl, “it’s like a hurricane and when I’m in the eye, I can see everything so clearly.”

Naturally, I despised these two. Writing anything of any length had always been impossible for me. (Why the hell else would I be hiding out in a poetry workshop?)

“I don’t know,” I said, unable to think of any weather metaphors. “For me it’s like when you have a leaky faucet and you call the plumber, but when he gets there, it won’t leak. So you’re both just staring at it, waiting.

“Excellent imagery,” said our professor. “Harness that.”

In high school, I’d skirted this writer’s block by “bullshitting,” which, in the elevated parlance of me and my friends, referred to any number of techniques used to make a paper appear longer than it really was. This was done to meet the minimum length requirements set down, arbitrarily and cruelly, by teachers who, honestly, should have known better. “Five double-spaced pages on World War I?!” we’d cry. “Who do they think we are, Barbara Fucking Tuchman?!” Then we’d bump the font to 14 and the margins to two and a half inches. You didn’t have to be good at bullshitting—which we weren’t—to get away with it. You just had to be shameless, lazy, and entitled, which I was. You had to be able to hand in a three-page paper with fifty words in it and just . . . walk away. If you could do that, you’d go to college.

Unfortunately, I never considered what would happen once I got there. And since high school tricks apparently no longer worked, I had no choice but to painstakingly drag words, one at a time, from thin air until I’d amassed enough of them to hand in. I imagine these papers were as torturous to read as they were to write. And while it was true that I dreamed of being a writer, it was more true that nothing terrified me more than having to write something. At the time, this seemed a very cruel paradox.

Then something strange happened. I didn’t write much after college. But when I got back into it, I couldn’t compose anything without filling page after page with, frankly, top-notch stuff. Uncuttable stuff. Stuff my high-school self would have died for. Need three hundred words on a new Thai restaurant? I will do you seventeen hundred better! Want me to sign a birthday card? I hope you brought extra paper. Oh, around a thousand words works best for your readers? Well screw your readers and their compromised attention spans. John McPhee’s last piece in the New Yorker was twenty-two thousand words and it was about rocks. Also, could I please just have twelve hundred?

Weirdly, I was getting rejections left and right. Since I knew the problem couldn’t be that the writing was bad, I started to suspect that there was just too much of it. Plus, occasionally I’d read something short and realize that the author had managed to do in seven minutes what would take me at least thirty—though forty-five would be better. I started to obsess over these pieces. Eventually, I took to copying and pasting them into a blank document and waiting anxiously for the word count to load. “SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY WORDS!?” I’d scream at my computer.

This exercise taught me an important lesson: where my writing was slow, flat, and boring, these pieces were short, incisive, and interesting. Basically, they were good and mine were . . . long. Luckily, the internet is full of advice for this very problem, much of it from men of astonishing prolixity. Orwell rails against adjectives and adverbs. Elmore Leonard advises writers to skip the boring parts. “Kill your darlings,” implores Stephen King, author of fifty-eight books and two hundred short stories.

Inspired, I went to work editing an essay that, at nine thousand words, was very safe from publication. First, I deleted adjectives and adverbs. “I swiftly boarded the long, metal train” became “I got on a train.” Suddenly the sentence was a “boring part,” so it had to go. But without that sentence, the following section didn’t make much sense. I cut it, too. Then I cut any sentence with a comma in it. Then I struck paragraphs that were looking at me funny. I hacked away at extra verbiage, looking for something worth keeping, until the thing was pared down to a snappy title and my initials. Finally, I declared my darling dead and deleted the file.

“I want to be short and deep,” I said to a writer friend one day. “Not long and flat. And cutting length feels impossible.”

“You gotta watch your words,” she said.

“Like count my calories?”

“Exactly. Be deliberate. Nothing goes in that’s not good for you. Whole grain, organic, locally sourced, whatever. You trim the fat before it’s even there. Cut the bullshit.”

“Yeah,” I thought. “Cut the bullshit.”

“Watch. Your. Words.”

I wish I could have followed my friend’s writing-as-dieting advice. I tried. But my brain doesn’t work like that. I have to spill everything out before I can see what I’ve got. Her suggestion did, however, lead to a kind of breakthrough. These days, I don’t even look at the words I’m writing. No one cares about those anyway. Instead, I keep my eyes trained on the little number in the bottom left-hand corner as it ticks steadily upward like the meter of a very expensive taxi. I watch the word count count. And my writing has really improved. I mean, would you believe it if I told you I managed to land this essay, no bullshit, right on the one-thousand-word mark? Go ahead, see for yourself.
__

Jonathan Arlan is an editor and writer based in Kansas City. His first book, Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps, was a New York Times summer reading recommendation (they kindly called it “a disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan”), and, more importantly, a huge hit with his mother. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Tablet, Off Assignment, The Millions and elsewhere. He’s currently at work on yet another travel book.

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§ 7 Responses to Watching My Words: A Writer Learns to Trim the Fat

  • Ah, writing past word count. Butchering an essay from ten pages to three used to be my favorite high school writing assignment. Most students immediately recognized that it was better. So if you needed a genuinely excellent ten-page paper? “I’d have to start with … oh, no … good grief.” Exactly.

  • Geoff says:

    For me, crafting fiction and nonfiction work differently. Showing and telling isn’t the same as explaining stuff. It’s easier for me to keep an article whittled down than a chapter, but it’s easier to weed out the chapter once I know what it needs to say, which emerges slowly. What an article needs to say is easier to know beforehand. Regardless, crafting both requires scrupulous attention to nuance and context. In the end, my word count will be what the text needs it to be.

  • bethfinke says:

    Who knew millennial Kansans could be so witty? Looking forward to the new travel book!

  • Kelly Fig Smith says:

    This was just brilliant. Dry, witty and honest (my three favorite things).

  • I’m working on the same issue these days, making sure all those words are necessary to tell the story. Thanks for sharing.

  • […] Revision by Lea PageWatching my Words: A Writer Learns to Trim the Fat by Jonathan ArlanThese two essays look at different types of revision, specifically the story on a […]

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