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Posts Tagged ‘the process of editing’

By Elizabeth Statmore

Here’s how a recent radio commentary emerged from writing practice to final recording.

This piece started life being written by hand as a 10-minute writing practice. Typed up, it came out to 595 words. Here’s the original, unedited writing practice:

I need to babble a bit and probably ramble on about things unrelated to my chapter. God, I really want this chapter to be over. Get it over with already. I am going to have to turn it over to my Higher Power.

But right now what occurs to me is how I felt when I heard the news that Grace Paley had died. I played ping-pong with her one summer at a women’s writing workshop at a Benedictine retreat center in the forests of central Oregon. She was the writer-in-residence that week — no students for her, no obligations except to be present with that wide green ping-pong table in the great hall that looked out over the bend in the wild McKenzie River.

She was always ready for a game or just a rally, and she seemed to be almost lurking by the table, waiting for her next victim or partner to come by and play with her.

She was not a particularly gifted ping-pong player, but she played with great gusto and delight and with an enthusiasm that was infectious.

She was already older, a round, frumpy looking woman with a careless halo of white curls and luminous blue eyes that glowed with a fierce sense of fun. She would hang out there by the reference books, the communal dictionary and other resources, waiting for someone to come along and play ping-pong. She was like the troll by the bridge or other mythical helper figures in fairy tales that the protagonist has to get by. It was as if a few rounds of ping-pong with her were just the thing to get you over that hump in your chapter or to work out the kinks in your sonnet.

I had read some of her stories and I grew up in the world that was the sequel to the one she depicted.

When she played she had a way of rocking from one foot to the other in victory. She also had a good-natured paddle slam through the air when she flubbed a shot.

She came to all the student readings, not just the faculty ones, and she took us seriously. I danced over the moon the night she told me she loved a piece I read aloud that evening. You might have heard me joining in the coyote madrigals in the forest after midnight later that night.

It was only in hindsight that I recognized how much greater was the gift she gave me through her stories. Growing up in that sequel world to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, it was eye-opening to read the shadow side, the lives of the Jewish women of that era dealing with love and loss and heartbreak and belief.

She didn’t just hang out with the other teachers — all noted authors in their own right — but she at whole-grain hippie pizza with us students on the deck and seduced us into senseless ping-pong marathons / tournaments that lasted late into the night and talked politics with us and what it meant to work as a writer.

She decided early on in her career that it was too overwhelming to try and write a novel, too big a project for her. She dedicated herself to her work as a miniaturist.

In the end what remains is her generosity, both in her work and in her living. She shared her mind with us and her enormous human heart, and we are all the richer for it. She will be missed.

I realized this could be the basis of a successful NPR commentary. Why? Three main reasons:

  1. it had a good “news peg” (relationship to a current news event)
  2. it offered a unique and personal connection to the subject (ping pong, rather than writing)
  3. it included a lot of fresh and interesting details

But to make it work, I would have to pare this first draft way down.

Through experience, I’ve learned that the text of my commentaries can only be about 350 words long — including the sign-off — in order to fit into the strict two-minute time slot in the Morning Edition clock that KQED uses (see examples of the major NPR clocks that affiliate stations have to adhere to at this link).

In radio, the time limit is the law. You will be edited or discarded if you can’t stay within the time count. So I am religious about rehearsing and knowing my time count.

For a two-minute commentary slot, my ideal is to come in between 1:48 and 1:52. At my normal speaking speed, that gives me about 350 words. In essence, this piece needed to be almost cut by half. This is where it comes in handy to know how to separate the creator from the editor.

STEP 1 – Say each thing only once.

In most of my writing practices I tend to cycle around ideas, topics, and memories, taking as many swings at the ball as I want to. It’s writing practice. Who cares if I repeat myself or babble witlessly?

Tracking Edits Function on WordBut for publication or broadcast, few things merit that much repetition. I took out my scalpel and cut out everything extra. I use Word’s “Track Changes” feature (pictured here) to make my first round of slash-and-burn cuts. Once you turn on this feature, Word will puts each deletion or change into a colored bubble on the side so you can make decisions about each one later.

It’s also true that you need to come right to the point in a short piece. “I played ping-pong with Grace Paley one summer…” is the hook in this write. I used that as my lead.

STEP 2 – Reassess.

This is always the horrifying step for me. I do a word count on what’s left after I think I’ve sliced out all my little darlings. The draft is now down to 515 words. On the one hand, this is good news: I’ve cut out 80 words with no pain. On the other hand, I still have to cut out another 165 words.

STEP 3 – Boil it down.

This is where the editing process gets interesting for me. The process shifts from surgical to chemical. I need to find ways to distill down the sense of what I’m saying in fewer words. Phrases need to be boiled down. For example: “but she played with gusto and an enthusiasm that was infectious” gets shorted to “but she played with gusto and with an infectious enthusiasm.”

Every single word must be considered.

Toward the end, I find two sentences that each encapsulate my elation at her positive feedback. I have to get rid of one, no matter how much I love it. Much denial and gnashing of teeth. I take the dog for a walk. In the end, I decided to drop my address to the listener, “You may have heard me later that night, when I joined in the coyote madrigals across the forest.”

It’s cute, but cutting it retains the sense and gives back 18 words. I’ll use the idea somewhere else another time.

Cutting out “depicting them with unflinching honesty” gives back another 5 words.

I add in the tag line (“With a Perspective, I’m Elizabeth Statmore”) which adds a non-negotiable 6 words, unless I change my name to a one-word moniker like Prince or Madonna (unlikely).

Eventually I trim the whole thing down to a workable 358 words and submit it to my editor for consideration. Every commentary is a completely new submission.

STEP 4 – Rewrite.

After 4,000 years (or three days, I can’t remember) the editor writes back and tells me he likes it a lot but worries that many listeners won’t know who she is and the intro can’t provide much context. He asks if I can take a stab at finding a way to establish who she is early on.

This means finding more words to cut but even worse, finding a way to sum up who Grace Paley was in a few words.

I did some writing practice and came up with an allegorical analogy (that Ph.D. in Comparative Literature comes in handy again!) comparing her to a present-day equivalent that most Bay Area readers would recognize, at least by name.

Here’s what I came up with:

That may not mean much to some of you, but for many of us she was a literary rock star, an award-winning author and activist who could be funny and political and profoundly compassionate all at once. Basically, the Anne Lamott of her time.

I cut a few more extra words and boiled it down to 366 words, which is fine if I rehearse properly.

By now there wasn’t much time left to get it recorded while it was still current! I chase down the supervising recording engineer and book the first studio appointment available the next day.

Here is the final version, which was broadcast on KQED on Tuesday, 4-Sep-07:

I played ping-pong with Grace Paley one summer at a women’s writing workshop in the forests of central Oregon.

That may not mean much to some of you, but for many of us she was a literary rock star, an award-winning author and activist who could be funny and political and profoundly compassionate all at once. Basically, the Anne Lamott of her time.

She was the writer-in-residence that week — no students, no obligations except to be present with that wide green table in the great hall that looked out over a bend in the wild McKenzie River.

Grace was not a particularly gifted ping-pong player, but she played with gusto and with an infectious enthusiasm.

She was already older, a tiny round woman with a careless halo of white curls and luminous blue eyes. She would hang out by the reference books, lying in wait for some new ping-pong partner, like some mythical helper figure in a fairy tale that the protagonist has to get past. As if a few rounds of ping-pong with her were just the thing to get you over that hump in your chapter.

When she won, she rocked gleefully from one foot to the other. When she flubbed a shot, she slashed her paddle through the air in frustration and spun around.

She didn’t just hang out with the other luminaries. She ate whole-grain hippie pizza with us students on the deck and lured us into endless ping-pong marathons. We talked politics and she asked us what it meant to work as writers.

She came to all the student readings and took us seriously. I danced over the moon the night she told me she loved a piece I read aloud that evening.

I understand now some of the gifts she left behind. She dedicated herself to the life of the miniaturist, caressing the shadow side of that world claimed by Philip Roth, the unnoticed lives of the women as they dealt with love and loss.

In the end what remains is her generosity. She shared her mind and her enormous human heart, and we are the richer for it. She will be missed.

With a Perspective, I’m Elizabeth Statmore.

I think this version retains all the spirit of the original, but in a form that enables it to find publication. Ultimately that’s all editing really is — helping your piece to find a foot hold.

You can hear Elizabeth’s piece Remembering Grace Paley on KQED Radio at this link. It aired yesterday, Tuesday, September 4, 2007.  Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to KQED-FM’s Perspective series. To read more about Elizabeth, visit her website, Elizabeth Statmore.

 

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