On Writing Long

by Jennifer Grant

I write long. For more than a dozen years, I’ve freelanced for newspapers, magazines and blogs. Just when I think I’m done with a 700-1,100-word assignment, I check the word count and find myself with double what I need. Or triple.

Blerg, I growl to myself. Not again. And then, painstakingly, I trim.

At first, it really is trimming. It’s like what one does with very sharp scissors and a little girl’s bangs. I’m careful, neat and as precise as possible. I try not to scratch any skin or catch eyelashes between the blades. Hours pass as I extract this phrase or that paragraph. Sometimes I dip into desperate behavior such as making “you are” into “you’re” to be rid of one more word.

And I get restless. My deadline approaches. The clock pushes toward three o’clock, the time when the day starts again for those of us with school-aged children and home offices. I start to hack. Who needs the paragraph describing the outside of the building – no matter how much I liked my comparison of the paint peeling from the bricks to the disappointment of the widower who lived inside?

Get to the point, I scold myself. Readers want to know what happened to him, not hear your silly rhapsodizing over the wild daisies that grow through the cracked cement outside his door. I highlight longer sections and hit “delete.” Surely, surely I must be close to the right length now, I think. I do the hundredth word count of the day and find I’m still over. A lot over.

I look at the clock. It’s 2:54 p.m. and soon the kids will come in, leaving a trail of shoes and backpacks and paper behind them. They’ll be all “I got my test back” and “Can I have the last cupcake?” and “I need my gym uniform washed.” It’s the usual stuff of life, the time of day I secretly love after having spent the previous six hours in near-silence with only the dog – and my own thoughts – for company.

(And I mean no offense to the dog. He’s exceptionally sweet, and generally quiet…except when he is compelled to shout at the mail carrier, at passing dogs or at the squirrels who launch themselves onto the neighbor’s birdfeeder.)

So, as a first-time author with an assignment that was not only longer than 1,100 words, but required not less than 45,000 and not more than 65,000 words, you would think I’d have been blissful. I could leave in the peeling brickwork and the posies coming up through the cracks. I could go off on tangents, make asides, tell funny barely-related anecdotes, and generally press on toward that enchanted 65K words instead of having to bush-whack back from writing too many words.

But, alas, I did it again. But this time, when it came time to trim, I had to be precise. Instead of writing for a newspaper (which someone once reminded me would line people’s bird cages the day after it was tossed onto their driveways) or for a website (which disappears into the black hole of the internet), I was writing a book. A proper book. One that would sit on someone’s shelf. One that could end up in an estate sale in 50 years, next to a cut glass punch bowl or a pogo stick, my little message to the future. Most importantly, it is one that my daughter – whose story is its inspiration – might read long after I have died.

So I wrote long, snipped and trimmed and found the entire practice much more difficult – and rewarding – that I expected it to be. I pushed right up against that maximum word count when I came in at about 64,000 words when it was done.

Weeks after completing final edits, I’m still in an almost-numb aftershock. When people ask me how it was, finally writing a book after writing hundreds of columns and stories and blog posts over the years, I answer – believe it or not – succinctly:

“It was harder than I thought it would be.”

(And now, I can’t wait to do it again.)

What’s been harder, in your life, than you expected?  Would you want the chance to do it again?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to On Writing Long

  1. Caryn R says:

    Great post, Jen. A bit long, though. Who CARES what your dog does to the mail man or what your book ends up next to at the yard sale? Besides me, I mean. ; )

    An editor once told me when she wants to cut my work, she just takes out all my parentheticals. Can you believe the nerve?

    Yay for long writing and random asides!!!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention On Writing Long | -- Topsy.com

  3. Caryn – you make me laugh. And I love love love all your asides, tangents and parenthetical statements. (As you know.)

  4. Brendan says:

    Amen. (My shortest sentence, ever.) I’m similarly afflicted by blunt scissors. I’ve posted stuff at going on 20,000 words. Online. I know no one will bother to read — the true cost of verbosity — but what’s gotta get said just doesn’t have a right-sizable container. Would you believe I’m also a poet? Not that I ever understood compression — you can revise down to next to nothing and the gossamer that remains doesn’t have enough strength to whisper in the wind. Or something. White noise and logorrhea, the tumid Amazon whose mouth I can’t shut up. OK, I’m bailing. :) – B

  5. Jennifer, Thank you for posting this. Everything I have ever done in my life has been harder than I expected it to be– hmmm, maybe I should reflect on that a bit and re-think the next time I dive in– like now with writing! I would love to write of meaningful people– which is every person; places– all of them, of course; and events– the mundane included.
    But it is hard.
    I do not have a degree in writing. I feel unsure. All the usual questions plague me. Blog? Clips? Twitter? Platform???
    It is hard.
    Adopting was MUCH harder than I expected… isn’t that funny? I think it is funny (my expectations, not adopting), now that I can reflect a little– bringing home two older children from Ethiopia with baggage to fill my whole house; unzipping my own baggage I had no clue existed– ugh. It was– is, sometimes hard.
    Thanks for letting me follow you on Twitter– I appreciate it :)
    Grace and Peace to you!

  6. Jen, I just wrote 1200 words for my 400 word post. Thought you’d be proud. Btw, I totally care about the wild daisies and the cracks in the cement.

  7. amy says:

    You are a beautiful writer, Jen. I love every word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>