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Greening the text

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 08, 2015

John McPhee, maybe our greatest living nonfiction writer (depending on how you feel about Joan Didion), has a lovely essay on omission in this week’s The New Yorker. Along with a tidy analysis of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor and some great shaggy-dog stories about citrus fruits, General Eisenhower, and more, he includes an exercise he learned writing for Time that he’s adapted for his students at Princeton.

After four days of preparation and writing—after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth night—and after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I can’t remember it coming to that…

The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.

Greening seems like such a material thing, wholly specific to print — not just to the fact of magazine layout, but a specific kind of workflow. One’s tempted to say with digital writing, we’ve overcome those space limitations, but I’m less sure. Twitter’s the obvious example, but doing web layout, I’ve killed more than my share of lines to preserve symmetry or squeeze everything into a smaller space.