Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Curmudgeon gets out the proverbial scissors

I finally heard back from a bar publication about an article I'd submitted last fall. The editor had asked me to update an article I'd written for the magazine over 15 years ago -- and I did. Not surprisingly, I tracked the old article in terms of topics and length and wound up with something substantially similar but boasting fresh case citations, most of them cases handed down after the old article appeared.

When I did finally establish communication last week, the response was both promising -- and terrifying. Yes, we still want to publish your article, the email read, but it's too long. Your article is 3,900 words and our guidelines require articles no more than 2,500 words in length.


This was my project for Saturday. I started first thing in the morning.

The good news was the article wasn't really 3,900 words long; according to the automatic word count, it was only 3,500. (I'd cut 400 words and I hadn't done anything yet!) And the next 500 came fairly easily, too. Some of the savings came from losing a paragraph, but most came from tightening up individual sentences, trying to say in four words something that I'd said in six. I went through the article line by line, carefully pruning. I will admit it was a better article at 3,000 words than it was at 3,500. I celebrated by having lunch.

But I still had to find 500 more words to cut.

The next 200 words went much more slowly. I changed a phrase here, cut out a word there. If I'd started the job with pruning shears I was using a small scissors at this point.

Still, after only a few more hours, I had excised 200 more words and not seriously altered the content of the article. But 2,800 was still too much and I had still over a page of text to lose.

Things really slowed down when I realized I was starting to rewrite quotes from cases. No, that won't do at all, I realized. I'd cut out only 100 more words by dinnertime. And this was after resolving to lose a bullet point in one of the sections. At this point, my scissors had become a scalpel.

I don't know if you've ever tried to cut something down that you've written. Regular readers here know this is entirely inconsistent with my usual approach. My typical blog posts grow like kudzu.

But I have had experience in making cuts before. Once, 20 years or so ago, in DuPage County, I learned the hard way that one of the local judges very strictly enforced a 10-page limit on briefs. Many Cook County judges, then and now, have a 15-page limit, and my brief in this case was no more than 12 or 13, tops. When the judge called me out, I pleaded ignorance (which was certainly true) and apologized. The judge tossed the brief back at me. "I read it," he said, "and you could have said this in eight pages easily." (Even 20 years ago I was smart enough to refrain from asking, since you've read it, why can't we just proceed to the merits? I rewrote the brief instead.)

In federal appellate practice, word limits are rigorously enforced -- and a lawyer may be fined or censured for fudging with margins or font sizes in an effort to try and conceal his or her verbosity. Someone once told me, though, not to stress over the limits. Instead, this person suggested I write whatever I felt needed saying without regard to the word limit -- keep the word limit out of mind completely -- and only then, after making all the points I felt appropriate, however I felt I needed to say them, try and figure out (if necessary) how to shoehorn those same arguments into the prescribed word limits. It turns out to be a good approach.

Here, though, I was trying to update an old article, conveying the same basic information, but with more contemporary citations. It was logical, then, that the new article should be as long as the old. The sorts of drastic cuts I was being asked to make threatened, in my view, to make the article less valuable. Ah, well, I rationalized, a byline is a byline. I began looking in earnest for those last 200 words.

Olaf and Younger Daughter, recent college graduates that they are, noted that I was doing the exact opposite of what college students usually do. Collegians are usually looking to pad their papers to achieve the required page length or word count. They watched in amusement for awhile, but then they disappeared. It was time to put the baby down for the night.

Long Suffering Spouse was in the den with me later in the day. She was grading papers. Periodically, she'd look up. "Aren't you done yet?" she'd ask. "You've been at this all day." I'd give her the current word count in response. "That's only 10 less than last time," she'd say. "Yes," I'd say, or, "Actually it's only six," depending on how things had gone between queries. I realized, finally, that one whole additional paragraph would have to go. I wanted to keep it; I thought it important, but it was increasingly obvious, as the night wore on, that it was the only way I'd ever get to the limit. I was like the high school wrestler trying to make weight. I'd sweated out all that I could; I'd used the enema (seriously, this is something high school wrestlers will do). At some point, the only thing left to remove is flesh and bone. Wrestlers have to admit defeat at this point, but, chanting the mantra, a byline is a byline, I pulled out a penknife and began sawing off my arm.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Long Suffering Spouse had already fallen asleep by the time I achieved my triumph: I was under 2,500 words by a dozen or more. I fired the article off to the magazine before remorse could take hold.

Then I woke up Long Suffering Spouse so we could go to bed.

Come to think of it, it's Wednesday afternoon already and I still haven't heard back from the magazine. Gosh, I hate waiting.

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