Swimming Out of the Safe Zone

January 25, 2023 § 16 Comments

By Rose Saltman

It’s that time of year again…the comment desk is looking for your evergreen pitches for December/January. Send to [The Guardian] with SUMMER PITCH in the subject line.

This tweet arrived towards the end of October. There was no guidance on word limit—I’d asked—so I decided to punt on a piece that suited the theme and was ready to go. My pitch celebrated the delight of ocean swimming in Australia and cited a 30-year history of doing laps at my local beach, one of Sydney’s most loved destinations, as evidence that I was qualified to write about this topic.

I was about to follow up two weeks later when I received an email from the deputy opinion editor.

Thank you for sending this piece. This is a lovely read, but with more than 3,000 words it’s too long for our purposes. Would you be open to editing your piece down to around 1,000 words? Thank you for considering it, best wishes.

I didn’t reply immediately. The piece was barely out of the starting gate, with only two other journals having declined it. I could put The Guardian’s offer to one side and keep trying to find a home for the long version. Going down this path, of course, risked rolling rejections.

The alternative was to grab the offer with both hands. The Guardian has a daily print-edition circulation of 111,000 and more than one million digital subscriptions worldwide. Half of the latter are outside the UK, dominated by US, Australian and European Union readers. Who was I to be precious about an acceptance predicated on something shorter?

The editor suggested I do the first cut, offering tips on where to start. Excising content peripheral to the theme—the boats I swam past, my wetsuit, a waterfront restaurant—dropped the word count to 2,700. I was now in uncharted territory, having to decide what more to prune without losing the general structure of the piece. I’d done it often enough with other writers’ work. Could I do it with my own?

I began with easy fixes: turning passive into active voice and whittling away at adverbs and adjectives. “I stop for long enough to line up a passage that will lead me to…” became “I line up a passage to….” A paragraph that wasn’t germane to the story took care of 121 words.

I assumed readers would know that the top of a hill is a good spot for admiring the view, shedding another four. The word count fell with each click of the shears, but if I wanted to get anywhere near the target, I’d have to be ruthless.

A sadness overcame me. I’d spent weeks crafting my story, its rhythms and cadences redolent of my intimacy with the ocean. It spoke to, for and of me as well as the collective that shares my enthusiasm for ocean swimming. To see this exercise through to the end I would need to don the mantle of executioner, killing darlings as dispassionately as a bulldozer clearing centuries-old oaks for a freeway.

I asked myself: did the reader need to know the history of daily sea temperature recordings (107 words), how swimmers feel about shark threats (170 words) or that the former net was both an eyesore and trapped rubbish (151 words)? No. The test was always the same: whether the piece could stand without this or that sentence or paragraph. If the answer was “yes,” out it went.

I was at 1,200 words, amazed that I’d shaved more than 60 per cent off the original. I emailed my draft to the editor. That’s a wrap, I thought.

Days passed with no response. Surely The Guardian hadn’t changed its mind?

I followed up at the end of November. Yes, things were still ticking along, she said, and I’d hear in the coming weeks about further edits and a publication date.

The editor contacted me two days before Christmas.

Thanks for your patience with this. I’ve now done some more edits additionally to the ones you’ve done, and which are great. The piece is now at around 850 words, which is perfect for our purposes. Please let me know if there’s an issue, preferably today, as it’s my last day before going on leave for two weeks.

Eight-hundred-and-fifty words? I didn’t believe that a work of such brevity could be a creature of mine. Gone were ignorant swimmers, memories of childhood squad training, how I navigated a course through moored boats, and why I had to cut short a winter swim due to hypothermia. I asked my husband for his opinion. We agreed that it was faithful to the intent of the original.

In taking the word count to 835—I double-checked!—the editor had spotted what I could no longer see: further opportunity to trim fat without compromising the piece’s cohesion.

A Solitary Morning Ocean Swim is a Salty Sanctuary for Introverts like Me was published on 27 December 2022 and syndicated across The Guardian’s global network. The response at home and abroad, has been overwhelming.

___

Rose Saltman is an urban planner, writer and editor who lives in Sydney, Australia. She has a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure, Overland Literary Journal and The Guardian, among others. She blogs at Someplace in Sydney. You can reach her at her website.

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