This is Just to Say…

Post Date: October 16th, 2009

“…I have eaten the plums

that were in the icebox…


— William Carlos Williams, “This is Just to Say”

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 118,338. (1508 words removed. Prepping for this blog post motivates!)

Page Count for the novel: 440

I just decided that if I could just cut “just” from my writing it’d be just great.

I spent ten minutes the other day getting rid of “just” and saved myself 49 words. Imagine all the space I’ll save by obliterating tiny excesses. And I’m only on page 161.

All writers have tics. My two favorites are “just” and “that.” In my first drafts I fully explain everything, over and over, as if my audience were preschoolers and I might lose out to paste and Elmo. I also love a lot of he said, she said in my dialogue, as if the reader might not know who’s talking. I call this word removal editing.

Some days editing feels like the softer side of writing, proof I’m working when my faint heart and foggy brain can’t bear to convert summary to scene or can’t abide killing the dialogue darlings. There’s definitely a satisfaction to this easy destruction, kind of like squashing bubble wrap, when technology is your servant (the search function) and you can kill off one word, over and over, without any deep thought expended. 

Technically, editing is much, much more — the laborious process of adherence to standard English and grammar where necessary. It’s not revision, which is deep-sea diving, excavating, and lots of detonating. Revision forces you to face global concerns — that the whole enterprise is sadly wrong or wonderfully right, that five pages right in the middle need to start page one, or that the point of view needs to be a secondary character instead of the protagonist — decisions that make you reel. Revision is every other writing step recurring as many times as needed — brainstorming, drafting, rewriting, repeat as needed. Editing is supposed to come after this long process of transformation: that confident and final clean-up where you put the microscope to each sentence. But then there’s me, who stops and edits all the time.

The human brain loves to slice up life into a pizza pie of categories. Perhaps that’s why writing as a process is now gospel truth in most every English Language Arts program. We must convert the creative act into stages, procedures, and sequences. Writing as a process does ensure kids actually spend more than ten minutes on an essay, but where we go astray is teaching each stage is discrete and part of a set, linear sequence. Editing sometimes needs to happen right after brainstorming or whenever the spirit moves you.

I read somewhere Cynthia Ozick can’t move beyond the first word to the second word until the first is perfectly right. It’s as if all writing stages fuse into every moment of the process. Lately when I see my excess words cluttering a first-draft sentence, I cut right away. Earlier and earlier it’s starting to happen (though don’t judge this blog as proof; it’s only a third or fourth draft!). I like that editing has entered my first phases of composition.

But now there must be a confession. Editing can be a detour, keeping me from serious revision. I think I’ve accomplished something and then I fixate on the little cuts. I skip between the tweaks and removal of whole scenes, which I would call true revision. This back and forth is right now the only way I can wrap my head around this draft. 440 pages feel manageable when I prune them word by word. Maybe when I see what’s left on the trunk, I can better graft some of the 300-plus deleted pages back in (now are you scared?), and only those that will take. My hope is to have 350 instead of 440 when it’s time to bring the two sections together.

Those excess words are like those frozen plums William Carlos Williams coveted. They tantalize me with their sugary highs but leave cavities in my mouth, AKA little black holes in your manuscript.

But they’re just so tempting!

Writing Goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words and a complete fourth draft ready by the AWP Award Series deadline. This weekend or next I will submit my essay to Hope Clark’s Invisible Writing contest. I am also writing a new short story for the Stanford Magazine Fiction Contest, due November 5.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts

• List your five favorite words. Then start a story with one of them.

• List five words you always say, at least every day. Which one is the most important? Why? Which one could you stop saying and you wouldn’t miss it?

• Finish this sentence by writing a poem or a story: “This is just to say…” or “I’m just saying…”

• Imagine that there are only 25 words left in the world to use for a story. Write a story with those 25 words. You can re-use those 25 as many times as you like and make the story as long as you like.

Secondary and Adult Prompts

• Write about writing as a process. What’s your process?
• Write about your bad habits and guilty pleasures when it comes to writing.
• Finish this is sentence by writing a poem or a story: “This is just to say…” or “I’m just saying…”
• Imagine that there are only 25 words left in the world to use for a story. Write a story with those 25 words. You can re-use those 25 as many times as you like and make the story as long as you like.

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