I didn’t realize that’s what Mark Twain meant

twainLast weekend I spent a whole Saturday with a bunch of people who wanted to learn more about blogging. It was fun and inspiring if not ground-breakingly informative. Basically it reinforced what I already know but lack the discipline to do: publish shorter stuff.

I can do this one of two ways: I can edit the bejeebers out of something after the fact, or I can just write less in the first place. I prefer the editing option because I think I get better material to work with if I just open up the floodgates of my right brain and let it dump all its contents out and then go back and organize the mess.  Editing while engaged in the act of writing is like trying to pee just a little bit when you really have to go. Neither is particularly satisfying, nor very productive.

At one point I’d honed some decent editing skills, having learned everything I know from my dad, a prolific writer and reader who loved the Mark Twain quote about not having the time to write a short letter. Dad’s perspective as a journalist saved my bacon when I landed my first professional gig: a series of hundred-word articles about business happenings for a local magazine. Dad showed me how to eliminate needless adjectives, rework clunky prepositional phrases and generally tidy things up while conveying the same idea. That was years ago. I’d like to think I retain some of that ability, but just got out of practice.

Colin wrote a book report last week. I watched him spill his guts over the course of pages and pages of looseleaf paper at the kitchen table. When he took a break to shake his cramping hand, I’d remind him not to retell the whole story, just give a ¬†summary and his opinion. I could see what was going on. The floodgates were wide open. I also knew a good percentage of his fellow students would probably get little further than describing the cover of the book and the number of pages before calling it good. I also suspected he was more than happy to postpone the math he’d also brought home.

His teacher returned the assignment (which Colin calls his “sloppy copy” because he can’t remember the phrase “rough draft”) with a new sheet of paper for the final copy, a few corrections in red pencil, and a helpful suggestion:

“Consider making it shorter.”

Since I’m better at editing than I am at 5th grade math, I offered to help.

“Your teacher thought you should shorten your book report,” I said. “Any thoughts on how you’re going to do that?”

“Well, the new paper doesn’t have lines, so I think I’ll just write smaller.”

Happy birthday, dad, and big old palm slap to the forehead for you from your grandson. You’re welcome.