Monday, December 24, 2007

Addition by Subtraction

For close to 20 years, starting in the early 1970's, I was a reviewer for Kliatt, which publishes a bimonthly guide for school librarians. Kliatt was originally the brainchild of two former teacher-librarians, Celeste Klein and Doris Hiatt, who faced the dilemma that all librarians must face: a finite budget, and a close-to-infinite range of choices of new books published each year. Given that most of the new books that come out are not readily available for perusal unless you buy them first, assuming you even know about them, how might it be possible to make better choices? That's the question that Celeste and Doris thought about, and the answer, in retrospect, seems obvious enough: you put together a magazine for librarians that will provide them with reviews of recommended books. They rented a storefront in Newton, MA, got the word out to the publishers, and began recruiting reviewers. It wound up being a perfect example, long before the term became popular, of a certain kind of social entrepreneurship.

The publishers were happy to send along free copies of their new books, in the hopes that they would be selected for review and possible purchase by school libraries. The librarians were happy to have solid information to help them make their choices. The reviewers, like me, were happy to be able to go to the office and select books to read, for free. The deal was that if you chose a book you were responsible for giving it a careful read, and if you thought it was worthy of recommendation you wrote a review. If you thought it was either not a good book or not appropriate for a school audience, you didn't have to write a review. In either case, the book was yours to keep. And Celeste and Doris were happy, or seemed to be happy, to be gainfully employed in an area of business that fit very nicely with their values and their personalities. So it was a good deal all around.

I was talking about my Kliatt experience with my students just before Christmas break, because they are in the process of finishing off their semester projects, most of which involve at least some writing. (Many of them involve a lot.) And so as they have been finishing their early drafts the focus has shifted to revision, and I've been trying to share with them some useful suggestions about that process. The first and perhaps most powerful rule of revision that I share with students is one which has been around in one form or another for a very long time. Strunk and White famously advise, "Omit needless words." Similarly, Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, writes

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

Hemingway's implied suggestion is to "cut that scrollwork and ornament out," and that principle of economy is what lies behind the standard all-purpose recommendation that I make to students: "Cut 20%." Of course, when you actually make the effort to do so, you may in fact wind up cutting 20%, or 40%, or only a few words here and there. The actual percentage isn't important, so much as the effort that one makes as a writer to scrutinize each sentence, to weigh each word and phrase, to make each choice purposeful.

It's advice I myself had gotten in high school and college, and understood to be true at a purely conceptual level, but it did not become part of my regular routine as a writer until I started writing for Kliatt. In the interests of representing more books in any given issue, reviewers were strongly encouraged to be concise. Usually the first drafts of my reviews would come in at 1200 or 1400 words, and then I'd have to narrow them down to 500 or 600. I wrote hundreds of reviews over the year, always having, at the end, to go back into them and look hard at every syllable, and it was, as Hemingway has it, "a good and severe discipline."

I wind up spending a good proportion of my time with students, as I read their papers or meet with them in individual conferences to go over, say, their college essays, doing little more than crossing out words, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs. It's a process of addition by subtraction. Less is more.

Kliatt is, as the URL at the top of this post indicates, still around, with my friends from the early days, Claire Rosser and Jean Palmer, at the helm. Since moving to Hawaii in 1998, I'm no longer in the stable. But it's a worthy publication, and I look back on my years as a reviewer with some fondness. Those of you with connections to school libraries may want to take a look.

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