Swimming Out of the Safe Zone

January 25, 2023 § 19 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.

Secateurs: Taking the Shears to Butterfly Blooms and Other Thoughts about Writing

August 4, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Ann V. Klotz

Before the long weekend, I am waiting to load the car, corral three cats into cages, leash the dogs and begin a long drive. Waiting does not come easily to me. In March, I had a trapeziectomy on my right thumb. I am a writer who has been unable to write—by hand—for more than three months—a quarter of a year, the length of the first trimester of a pregnancy, the first 100 days by which a new President is judged. And I’m mad that my hand still refuses to do what I tell it.

“Bend,” I instruct. It makes the puniest of efforts.

My pinky has become arthritic. I’ve developed an unwelcome case of Dupuytren’s Syndrome, which has to do with ligaments pulling my fingers inwards and means, according to my occupational therapist, who looks like a loving grandmother but is secretly a sadist, that I am descended from Vikings. Me at 5’2” with gray-streaked brown hair. Viking roots seem unlikely.

Impatient about waiting for my hand to heal and for us to get on the road, I visit the fairy garden I have made for my new next-door neighbor, Mae, who is five. I add a sow and three infinitesimal piglets to the small kingdom her big sister, Ruby, and I have constructed in the roots of an ancient maple between their house and ours. I place a tiny white fox and a red fox kit and a new fairy in a purple gown underneath an arch.

On the way back to our house, I note that the peonies by the front door need to be deadheaded. Before March, I could have easily snapped the stems between my thumb and pointer, but now I fetch my secateurs from the kitchen drawer.

Snip, toss, snip, snip, toss. As the pile grows, I consider how pruning gives rise to new growth in plants and essays. Studying recently with Mel Allen, I worked to be more concise. How to say more with less? I finish the peonies, groom the pansies and turn my attention to our butterfly bush. Pointy floral skeletons tilt at odd angles, their dried flowers a precise replica of the blooms to come. I worry that by neglecting to cut it back when I should have, I will inhibit the bush’s new growth.

A memory floats back. Years ago, I facilitated a book group for a group of women, most of whom had graduated from Radcliffe in the early 60’s. They wanted to read “good books” and they paid me, an English teacher, handsomely. We met monthly in Libby’s apartment. I prepped each session assiduously, researching criticism on classic novels in the Bobst Library at NYU. There was no Google in those days to offer a million links to what literary minds made of Howard’s End. Over time, I came to know the women and enjoy the thoughtful ways they discussed literature. Then, they chose To the Lighthouse.

When I, not yet a mother, suggested Mrs. Ramsay was manipulative in her mothering, one of the women rose from her chair, enraged.

“How dare you,” she sputtered. “How dare you!” She stalked from the room, grabbed her coat, and slammed the door.

“I’m so sorry—“ I began, looking around the cozy library at the other women, all unruffled. “I didn’t mean to upset her.”

“Think nothing of it,” reassured Libby.

But I did. I thought often of that moment, wondering why my characterization had provoked such indignation. Woolf was an accomplished gardener. It never struck me as wrong that Mrs. Ramsay, like all good gardeners, was manipulative. Gardeners, writers, parents–we weed and prune and train and switch up variables for the best effect. I continued to lead the book group until my own daughter was born, but the woman who left abruptly never returned.

Clipping at the butterfly bush’s old growth, I tilt my head, look again, realizing I had missed another branch full of last year’s frozen flowers. Each time I glanced away, I turned back to see bits I had missed. Like writing. When we look again, particularly after a few hours or months, we find more to edit, to compress, to fix. I re-arrange words to shape an experience. In my garden, I experiment, learn from one season’s failures, try new plants. As a mother, I hope I influenced my children’s characters by reinforcing certain behaviors over others. Manipulation in the name of cultivation is not scurrilous. Gardening, writing and parenting all require time; we cannot see what we have made right away.

Earlier in the week, I edited a long piece by hand. It’s different reading on paper than on the computer. Though I had revised the piece several times, I still found redundancies, peculiar constructions, the same word used twice in a sentence. As the scraps of dead-headed blossoms on the paving stones grew—a few bright violet pansy petals peeking from beneath the pile of lacy vestiges of butterfly blooms and the flat faded peonies–I thought about how liberating it is to cut, to revise, to make space and room for new growth. Patience is key.

On that brisk June morning, marveling at the architecture of each withered buddleia cluster, I thought of Woolf–of her incandescence, her ability to observe and describe a moth, her childhood rendered with such empathy and clarity, and her gift in writing characters we never forget. And I tried to be patient with my hand, healing as fast as it knows how.

Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection.  Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station.  She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction.  You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog: www.annvklotz.com

Powerfully Editing Your Next Draft

December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments

Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!

But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?

First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.

Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.

Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.

I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.

1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.

2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.

3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?

4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.

5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.

6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.

7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?

8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.

Next, my favorite editing technique of all:

9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.

When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.

This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”

If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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