Editing: the long and the short of it

For a lifelong scribe like me, a big experience is almost always accompanied by the desire to write about it. It's a way of incorporating it, literally bringing it deeper into myself by thinking, distilling, describing. Having started as a journalist, I first thought of newspapers as an outlet for an account of my trip to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But what would the angle be? The functioning of the ship as it works out the bugs that come with being new, so a quasi-business angle? The scenery and the communities I visited, so more a travel piece? Know your audience is the common advice to writers, but newspaper feature stories have a general readership. I would need to write about all those things, condense them into a journalistic narrative that would show that yes, the ship was behind schedule, which meant we had to explore some of the picturesque villages in the dark and the people in the communities were forced to wait unpredictable lengths of time to board their way out to "civilization". Those things were true, yes, but it was also true that the boat was comfortable, beautiful in an industrial sort of way, the food exceptional, the scenery something not often seen, because it so far out there, the Gulf. So far out to everyone but the people who live there.

My first run came in at almost 3000 words and even that left out details about the ship personnel I had talked to and the ship itself, plus some character cameos, and 3000 words would be too many for a newspaper feature, even the few that publish long-form journalism these days. My first solution was to divide it into two parts: part one, an overview; part two, the characters on the boat and their social realities. People are what make a trip for me. I couldn't leave them all out. I sent the draft article to a couple of friends who had asked about the voyage, and both urged me to publish; one suggested a well-known publication whose submission guidelines I researched only to find that the longest acceptable feature was only 1500 words. Would such extensive cuts cause fatal bleeding? Could my piece survive at half length?

Folks who don't sit at their desks every day dealing with words might not understand why I found the process thrilling. A good workout. What a lesson! I discovered ways of making sentences more economical,  that I had more or less introduced the same idea more than once, even if on the surface they didn't appear like the same ideas. I jettisoned qualifiers, words like however and perhaps, and personal observations that applied, but that a reader could do without. I actually felt as if I had won a prize when I clicked on word count in the tools menu and saw 1494. Blessed concision. Almost poetry! As a teacher I used to tell my students that feelings like this are what a writer gets instead of money.

I have written long and short form journalism, magazine features, documentary film scripts, and a non-fiction book, but in the last number of years I have been thinking long, as novelists do, since I write mostly novels now.  Though I coined the motto, "all the news that fits," when I was editor of a weekly newspaper, cutting to fit is something I haven't regularly practiced for a long time. It has been fun to relearn basic principles, but... there is more to say. With publishing going the way it is; with more writers seeking fewer publishers of all kinds,  I have no idea if the well-known publication whose guidelines inspired me to slash my piece will accept it. If not, I am going back to longer forms. Instead of cutting, I am going to expand. I am going to write more about the ship and the individuals I met, more background, more anecdotes. I am going to tell it how it was, for me, because good stories are never simple. It might even end up as a novel.