Saturday, November 21, 2015

Beatles – "Paperback Writer" (1966)

It's a thousand pages, give or take a few
I'll be writing more in a week or two
I can make it longer if you like the style

The subject of last 2 or 3 lines was John McPhee, the greatest living American nonfiction writer.  Click here if you missed it. 

In the last few years, McPhee (who is 84) has written a number of pieces about writing in the New Yorker, the most recent of which is titled “Omission.”  (You can click here to read that article, and I strongly recommend that you do.)

John McPhee
The subhead of that article is “Choosing what to leave out.”  McPhee is a big believer in the importance of leaving things out when you write – in particular, yourself:

Let the reader have the experience.  Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.  When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.  If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.  Give elbow room to the creative reader.  In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.  

McPhee’s advice is hard for me to swallow.  I often give very little elbow room to my readers.  I think  I’m afraid that they won’t get my point unless I hit them over the head with it.  

In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said that

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

This is a very Zen approach to writing.  A writer like Hemingway may have been able to pull this off, but I’m no Hemingway – I can only leave so much out and still have anything to say.

Leaving things out can take a lot of time and effort.  President Woodrow Wilson understood that.

Here’s what Wilson said when he was asked how long it took him to write a speech:

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President.  “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all.  I am ready now.”

There’s an old saying that expresses Wilson’s sentiment more succinctly: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

That sounds like something Yogi Berra might have said.  It was actually written – in French, of course – by the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. 

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” is no joke – it’s a simple statement of fact that any experienced writer or editor appreciates.  

John McPhee's high-school yearbook photo
John McPhee learned how to decide what to leave out early in his writing career, when he worked for Time magazine.  (As McPhee’s article makes clear, when he talks about a writer leaving things out, he is really talking about taking things out after you put them in.)

After completing an assignment and getting a thumbs up from his editor, a Time writer would receive a preliminary printed version of his or her article (a “galley proof”) to proofread and edit.

The proof would usually have “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such note written on it.  “Green 5” meant that the writer needed to take a green pencil and shorten the piece by five lines so that it would fit into its allotted space in the magazine.

Groan as much as you liked, you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itself – studying your completed and approved product, your “finished” piece, to see what could be left out. . . . Greening has stayed with me, though, because for four decades I have inflicted it on my college writing students, handing them nine or ten swatches of photocopied prose, each marked “Green 3” or “Green 4” or whatever.

Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom, I tell them.  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.  

McPhee gives examples of passages by Joseph Conrad, Philip Roth, and other great writers that he told his students to green.  “Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint,” he instructed them.

He seems to have taken particular pleasure in giving his students the Gettysburg Address – which is only 25 lines long – with a note to “Green 3.”  Try that sometime.  (McPhee’s favored solution is to delete the latter part of the ninth sentence and the first part of the tenth sentence, and combine the two fragments.  That eliminates 24 of the Gettysburg Address’s 272 words.)

When he was at Time, McPhee worked with Calvin Trillin, who may be my second-favorite New Yorker writer.  Here’s what Trillin wrote about the pleasures of greening:

I don’t have any interest in word games – I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble – but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story – a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact – was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it.  The greening I did [while at Time] convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.”  And one of these days I’m going to begin doing just that.

Actions speak louder than words, so I decided to demonstrate that I am a true disciple of McPhee by greening this 2 or 3 lines post. 

Here are the parts I decided to leave out:

In 1871, Mark Twain wrote a letter to a friend that included the following lines: “You’ll have to excuse my lengthiness – the reason I dread writing letters is because I am so apt to get to slinging wisdom & forget to let up.  Thus much precious time is lost.”  

Like Twain, 2 or 3 lines is also apt to forget to let up once he gets to slinging wisdom, which leads to the loss of much precious time. 

* * * * *

Last year, the Reuters news agency sent out a memo instructing its writers to limit their stories to 300 to 500 words.  “Most readers tend to give up well before the 500-word mark,” the memo said. 

"If editors were serious about shorter copy, which often takes more effort than longer stuff, they'd give their reporters more time," Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote in response to that memo.  

If you do much writing, you know that Shafer is correct: it often takes more time and effort to write a short piece than a longer one.

* * * * *

The old saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” has been misattributed to a lot of different people, including Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Bill Clinton.  

* * * * *

But perhaps his cruelest assignment was to tell each student to pick what he or she thought was the best paper he or she had written for McPhee's course and green ten per cent of it.

I’m going to go back through the parts of this post I decided to leave in and do a little more greening before I hit the “publish” button.  Once the finished product appears, I invite you to green it yourself.  I have a smart bunch of readers – some of you are (or were) professional writers and editors – and I’d love to see what you come up with.

“Paperback Writer” – the Beatles' eleventh U.S. single – was released in 1966.  The Beatles had been given a preview of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album earlier that year, and they emulated the Beach Boys’ harmonies in “Paperback Writer.”

Beatles - Paperback Writer by hushhush112

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