Warning: This blog entry contains material that some will likely find offensive. If that’s you, please don’t continue on.
While editing hundreds of woodworking articles during the last 24 years, I noticed a funny and annoying pattern to the writing.
First problem. We’d ask the author to tell the story in 2,500 words and send us 12 step photos of the construction process (or technique) they were writing about. The writer would then turn in a 14,000-word manuscript and mail me a CD filled with 637 jpegs. Usually there was a note: “Just throw out what you don’t need!”
Second problem. Most of the unedited manuscripts about building a project went like this:
- About 10 typewritten pages on wood selection and layout, with a detailed discussion of how to avoid knots, plus some deep thoughts on moisture exchange.
- Five pages on processing stock, with tips on jointer safety, a trick to empty dust collection bags and thoughts on dealing with cross-grained hardwoods (even though the project is in pine).
- Two pages on joinery.
- Finally the sentence: “Build the dovetailed drawers, add the inlay, make the glass doors with diamond mullions, apply your favorite finish and you’re done. Have a beer!”
This happens because the author tried to write the whole damn article at one sitting and got tired when he or she finally hit the section on joinery. Plus, he or she didn’t go back and edit the copy after leaving it alone for a while.
When I write, I do it in 30-minute bursts to avoid getting tired. I write a few paragraphs, then I go into the shop and do a little handwork. When I return to the keyboard, I begin by reading the chapter I’m working on from its beginning to make sure these older paragraphs flow into my new ones. Then I try to leap off the most recent paragraph and write some new ones, inspired by the flow of the chapter I’ve just read.
After I finish a chapter, I set it aside for a few days, weeks or months (if possible). When I come back to edit it, it’s like I’m editing someone else’s work, and I can take a fresh hatchet to it.
A fellow writer described this process in a much more crude but effective way. If you are at all sensitive, do not read past this sentence. Really. Because this will stick with you.
This fellow writer also set his writing aside for a month or so. He called it “becoming a stranger.”
“When I was a little boy, I would sit on my right hand until it became numb,” he said. “Then I would (play with myself). And because my hand was numb, it was like being with a stranger.”
I warned you. I’m sorry. And this is why your mama didn’t want you to become a writer.
— Christopher Schwarz
29 thoughts on “Making Book Part 11: Get to Know the Stranger”
“..take a fresh hatchet to it.” Lovely turn of phrase 🙂
Too many metaphors. On what, exactly, is the hatchet being used?
Good advice but oh boy! aren’t you going to wee* off them ole’ fuddy-duddies;-)
*more polite to be weed off than pissed-off right? …mmm… that could be really misconstrued…
Ha, ha. You didn’t even ask me to concoct a 2,500 word article with a few snaps. And then, with barely any solicitation on my part, I dumped something close to 180,000 words plus about 400 images for you wade through. Luckily you didn’t try to turn it all into a 2,500 word article.
I can sympathise with the editing and proofreading thing though. I have no idea now just how many times I went through sections to tweak the phraseology and to try and catch all the typos, and I still missed things. I hazard a guess that I probably undertook such editing anywhere between maybe seven and fifteen times per section. In my case I can only proof read really effectively via the process I call ‘red penning’. This means physically printing the part I want to edit, reading the print on paper and marking and changing stuff with a red pen, before going back to the digital document to make the changes. Richard.
If your left hand is in the picture then…
My father, who was an artist, when working on a drawing or a painting would regularly turn it upside down to look at, precisely in order to create an effect of alienation that he said helped him spot errors of form and composition.
Interesting approach! When writing short pieces that have to perfect, I’ll read each sentence backward. It forces you to read each word. Disorienting to say the least. Effective but exhausting.
Ha! Exactly what I learned (not that I do this too often, but still…)
This was the first assignment in my college drawing I class. It works well because by turning the image upside down it forces you to see and then draw shapes as they are thus engaging your right brain. Often people draw ideas from their left brain. They draw what they think an eye should look like instead of the correct shapes of the eye
Great advice! And written in a manner half of us will be able to relate to :-). Honestly, I was hoping for something way more “non-PC” than that. It’s the world we live in…..
A non sequitur perhaps, but this reminds me of an old Gallager joke: “You got two hands;” (holds up hands for examination) “they look exactly the same; one of them ain’t worth shit!”
Sorry for the semicolon abuse.
Thanks for the humor, Chris. That’s how I know it’s you.
Write purposefully. Write succinctly. Edit ferociously, even blog posts.
You couldn’t leave this one alone for a while and come back later and edit that last bit out? 😁
Also your pic reminds me of the Addams Family. (That’s what I’m going to try to remember about this post. )
Nice photo of Miss Rosie Palmer.
I’ve enjoyed writing my entire life. Some for myself, some for others, some published and some not. These days, I write hundreds of scripts for video and an occasional article. I have a fair amount of practice and one thing I learned early on was less is more, especially when it comes to instructional materials. Keep it simple, break it down in a way that may be easily followed and understood by the reader. And for goodness sake, don’t make extra work for the editor by thinking you’re Hemmingway. When I do have something published, I take pride in how many of my own sentences were printed without the need for changes.
Actually, Hemingway (one m) was a master of short, simple sentences; no doubt reflective of his days as a newspaper reporter. Faulkner on the other hand… There’s about a dozen great quotes by the likes Blaise Pascal, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain etc. that all say something like “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Or as Shakespeare’s Polonius says in Hamlet, “Brevity is the sole of wit.”
I used to write for radio. The listeners only get one chance to hear what you’ve written. You have to pare and pare and pare until what’s left is everything that’s essential and nothing more. Every word counts, and every unnecessary word counts against you.
Humm, seems like I heard that story before, oh yea, it’s a quote from “Gone in 60 Seconds”!
It may well be. Never seen the movie.
Reminds me of the family guy episode where Neil says, “I might even go lefty tonight. Stranger in the dark.”
It’s been said that if Elvis had a couple of people in his life that would say NO! to him he’d still be swiveling hips. I’m not comparing you to Elvis any more that I am myself to Prince… But where were Lucy and the girls when you were about to hit enter. Offended… not in the slightest… confused… for sure.
Sometimes I poop my own nest. Can’t help it.
As soon as I saw “becoming a stranger” I started laughing. Just fantastic.
I write everything longhand at first. (I started writing before computers.) But then when I type it, and print it out, the writing looks “published”; which alienates it enough that I can edit, as if it were something somebody else wrote. I can go a couple rounds in a day that way. Then letting time pass helps too, to edit further.
Lol about the boy. When I was writing I did exactly the same thing and my editor said it was too long. He said it needed to be as long it would take to read an article whilst in the loo. I did shorten it somewhat but clearly not enough.
Funny. So many options for jokes here. Don’t know where to start.
I’m liking these “behind the scenes” articles as much as the woodworking and “life” articles. I liked how you framed the end so we could choose to be offended or not.
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