Something to think about:
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” John Gould to Stephen King, quoted from On Writing
One more quote from Stephen King:
“In the Spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would’ve been—I got a scribbled generated signature of the editor that was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’” Stephen King, On Writing
While PUFFY pastry sounds delicious, PUFFY prose sounds soft and squishy, uncertain. What does the story want to be? To find out, we sharpen our prose and shed the excess pounds that weigh our stories down. I am a big believer in the power of showing vs telling. To highlight the concept, here is my first draft to last week’s prompt:
Measure Twice, Cut Once (first draft)
Dr. Spinosee lifted the surgical gown up to Mrs. Lindenberg’s right thigh. He moved the adjustable lamp down close to her leg, warming her shin. He adjusted his eyeglasses, pulled a Sharpie pen, Chisel-tipped and green-hued, out of his pocket and removed the cap. The sweet, chemical scent of the dye filled her nostrils, momentarily masking the sterile smells of liquid disinfectants and bleached sheets. The marker’s odor didn’t offend Mrs. Lindenberg’s nose, calling to mind her beloved classroom days correcting 10th Grade English papers with a red, fine-tipped Sharpie; but in this setting, she found it somewhat unnerving. Her flesh, infected by gangrene in her toes, was about to be violently corrected. Even under the influence of the relaxing drug entering her body through the IV drip bag—she could remember what her nurse had called it—she was clear about that fact.
She trusted Dr. Spinosee. When he had delivered the news that he was going to have to amputate her foot and possibly her leg to the knee, she hadn’t second guessed him. He had a solid reputation and seemed to know what he was doing, but now she wondered. She started to squirm and to question him, but he shushed her and glared at her over the top of his thick glasses. “Now, Mrs. Lindenberg, you must be quiet and hold still for me. This is an important measurement!”
Mrs. Lindenberg sighed and held still for the man. The ink felt cool on her skin. She was surprised by how much he marked. When he was finished, he sat back and examined his handiwork, nodding in self-satisfaction at the marks. As he stood up to leave, she cleared her throat and spoke in her best teaching voice, “But, Doctor, the infection is on my left leg.”
I have captured the essence of the story, but it is bogged down with excess words and confused by awkward phrasing. By eliminating a few pounds (somewhat, momentarily, etc.) and repositioning my phrases, I achieve clarity and concision. This first draft phrasing:
He adjusted his eyeglasses, pulled a Sharpie pen, Chisel-tipped and green-hued, out of his pocket and removed the cap. The sweet, chemical scent of the dye filled her nostrils, momentarily masking the sterile smells of liquid disinfectants and bleached sheets.
He adjusted his eyeglasses and removed the cap from his chisel-tipped, green Sharpie. The ink’s sweet, chemical scent filled her nostrils, masking the room’s sterile smells of liquid disinfectant and bleached sheets.
I kept the important parts, shifting the phrasing for clarity. I also dropped the description of the doctor pulling the sharpie out of his pocket. It wasn’t essential to understanding the story and distracted from the Sharpie, which is the focal point of the sentence.
Writer’s Workshop I, Batting Practice
Now it is your turn. Take the piece you wrote for the prompt, “measure twice, cut once,” and try to cut at least 10% of your word count. Remember to look for places where you can alter your phrasing to give the sentence clarity. Rephrase your adverb descriptors: very funny = hysterical, very pretty = beautiful, very hungry = famished. Simplify confusing sentences, and they will impact your audience. You are crafting this version FOR your audience. Have fun and feel free to comment on your approach to this challenge.
My first draft contained 304 words, so my challenge required at least a 30-word cut. I ended up cutting 45.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Dr. Spinosee lifted the surgical gown up Mildred’s right thigh and lowered the lamp over her leg, warming her shin. He adjusted his eyeglasses and removed the cap from his chisel-tipped, green Sharpie. The ink’s sweet, chemical scent filled her nostrils, masking the room’s sterile smells of liquid disinfectant and bleached sheets. The marker’s odor didn’t offend Mildred’s nose but reminded her of former days spent correcting her 10th Grade English students’ papers with her own fine-tipped, red marker. The memory started out sweet, but quickly soured, as she wondered how much of her gangrene-infected flesh was about to be corrected. The drug entering her body through the IV drip relaxed her, but she retained control of her faculties, observing the doctor’s every move with dismay.
Dr. Spinosee had come highly recommended. When he delivered the news that he was going to need to amputate her foot and possibly her leg to the knee, she hadn’t second guessed him. Now, she started to squirm and opened her mouth. “Be quite and hold still! This is an important measurement!” he scolded.
Mildred sighed and held still for the man. The ink felt cool on her skin. She was surprised at the extent of his marks. The bottom of her leg looked like a warped tic-tac-toe complete with X’s. When he finished drawing, he sat back and examined his handiwork with self-satisfaction. As he stood to leave, she cleared her throat and spoke in her best teaching voice, “But, Doctor, the infection is on my left foot!”
Word count: 259
Thank you to everyone who participated this week. I was blown away by your creative approaches to the prompt and thrilled with the quality of the stories. They were a lot of fun to read. I can’t wait to read their trimmed forms!
First draft responses to the prompt:
Christine’s The Shopping Trip
Angela’s Measure Twice, Cut Once
Manja’s Clip cloppity clop
Stephen’s “Cut Me, Mick, Cut Me!”
Liyona’s Sherlock and Claire
Sarah’s Measure Twice, Cut Once
Red Cat’s The Seamstress
And this from Jane Tims:
‘measure twice, cut once’
the slogan of careful men
the men who raised these bridges.
beams and posts
shaped and joined and finished.
Carpenters and labourers
Every rafter cut
To fit, position precise
A job to do
Laid out on the ground,
Marked and reassembled
to cross the river
Three timbers marked
side by side
Chords, struts, braces and posts
Howe truss configured
Light timbers, metal tension bars
braces and counter braces
making ‘m’s and ‘w’s and diamonds
Built in, a camber, to take the downward weight
of the bridge as it settles
Bridge done, and
and a herd of cattle driven through
to test sturdiness, vibration,
Then, careless, someone fails
to read a sign
The French Village Covered Bridge (Hammond River Covered Bridge #2) was built in 1912 and removed in 2017 after a 13-tonne excavator dropped through the decking of the bridge in October 2016. The excavator, loaded with 3.7 tonnes of wood, exceeded the 12 tonne maximum posted for the bridge.