Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic WritingNo, the title of this post is not an oxymoron. Academics can write with style. Some of us do. All of us should. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers advice for all who aspire to write with grace and economy. The book is smart, funny, and — even better — applicable beyond academe.

Many of us write the way our disciplines taught us to write, but, as Sword points out, there’s a good degree of variance within any given discipline. People don’t write articles all the same way. In every discipline, there’s room for creativity, space for departing from the formula. Writing bland, jargon-y prose is not the only way to get published. To quote Sword, “academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not following rigid rules” (30). That’s the key advice here. You can write well and get published in any discipline; the path to publication involves smart choices, not the strictures of jargon.

Here are six pieces of advice from her book:

  1. Open with something catchy: As Sword puts it, “recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem” (8).
  2. Prefer active verbs to passive ones: no one likes sentences that erase human agency.
  3. As Richard Lanham famously asked, “Who’s kicking who?” That should be “Who’s kicking whom?,” but the point is sound: nouns and verbs form the backbone of a strong sentence. If your sentence construction obscures cause-and-effect, then rewrite it.
  4. Jargon for its own sake is lazy. Use it when it serves your purpose — as Sword notes, it’s a “highly efficient form of disciplinary shorthand” (117). That’s great. But don’t use it as a substitute for thought. Draw upon the insights of critical theory, philosophy, medicine, and any relevant discipline, but express those insights in clear, concrete prose.
  5. You don’t need to use long sentences all the time. Short ones are nice. Varying sentence lengths works well, too.
  6. Avoid extraneous words and phrases. As Sword writes, “Avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction or for stylistic effect. Sentences that rely on subordinate clauses that in turn contain other clauses that introduce new ideas that distract from the main argument that the author is trying to make . . . well, you get the idea” (62).

From my earliest days as an academic, I’ve aspired to write clear sentences. So, in part, Sword’s book has (for me) affirmed what I’ve always tried to do. I know of course that (despite my efforts) I have written sentences that fall short of this goal.  For that matter, I know that I will never be as deft a stylist as Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, or Robin Bernstein (to name a few academics who are also graceful writers), but I also know I can be better.  Sword’s book can help us all be better.

This is why, since I started reading the book, I’ve been recommending it to my fellow academics.  (To give credit where it’s due, Robin Bernstein’s Facebook post of the video below alerted me to Sword’s work.)

The Humanities need scholars who can communicate well. Our professional lives and the futures of our disciplines depend upon our ability to convey our ideas with clarity and grace to legislators and to the general public. The Humanities are not a luxury. As Adam Gopnik wrote so eloquently earlier this week, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because [...] they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Stylish Academic Writing has renewed my commitment to writing well.  If more of us take Sword’s advice to heart, perhaps over time, we can help our governments renew their commitments to the Humanities, and to a way of living that puts human beings first — rather than putting first, say, corporate profits, easily quantifiable utility, expensive surveillance, or lethal technologies.  Perhaps.

Even if we fail, it will have been worth the effort.


Bonus: a video on zombie nouns.

Another bonus: some links.

  • Stylish Academic Writing: Harvard University Press’s page, featuring many links.
  • The Writer’s Diet Test: Sword’s automated feedback tool asks “Is your writing flabby or fit?” and invites you to “Enter a writing sample of 100 to 1000 words” and find out.

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Research, Writing, and Getting a Life

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber EyesOne of the many pleasures of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) is its evocation of the thrill of research. As he traces the history of his family’s netsuke (small Japanese ivory and wood carvings), de Waal describes great-great-great grandfather Charles Ephrussi’s art-collecting in nineteenth-century Paris as “‘vagabonding’ … done with real intensity”:

Vagabonding was his word. It sounds recreational rather than diligent or professional…. But it does get the pleasure of the searching right, the way you lose your sense of time when you are researching, are pulled on by whims as much as by intent. It makes me think of the rummaging that I am doing through his life as I track the netsuke, the noting of other people’s annotations in the margins. I vagabond in libraries, trace where he went and why. I follow the leads of whom he knew, whom he wrote about, whose pictures he bought. In Paris I go and stand outside his old offices in the rue Favart in the summer rain like some sad art-historical gumshoe and wait to see who comes out. (72-73)

That’s exactly right. Writing a biography — or, truly, intense research of any kind — is detective work. It’s extremely absorbing, getting a lead, following it to a new source, finding connections between lives and ideas. You are on a quest, and you must keep going until you finish!

New York Times Magazine, 15 April 2012But dedication to the quest also takes its toll. As Charles McGrath reports in today’s New York Times Magazine profile of master biographer Robert Caro, researching and writing the third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson had taken so long that Caro and his wife went broke. She sold their Long Island home, found them a cheaper apartment in the Bronx, and got a teaching job to help pay the bills. The biographer — obsessive, driven, seeking every last detail — often depends upon a patient, supportive spouse. It’s no coincidence that my forthcoming biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, is dedicated to Karin. Who else but one’s partner would put up with such fanatical devotion to a book?

This process recalls a line in a recent Times Higher Education piece on academics: “the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work.” This is equally true of the biographer. For both the professor and the biographer, there is no boundary between life and work. Your life is your work and your work is your life. Or, in the case of the biographer, your work is someone else’s life.

I’m not arguing that one’s work should be all-consuming, though I would note that Caro’s work on LBJ and Edmund de Waal’s absorbing family history are both excellent because each writer is so very thorough, obsessive, and meticulous — in both the research and the writing. McGrath notes that Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb “argue about length, but they also argue about prose, even about punctuation.”  As Gottlieb says,

You know that insane old expression, “The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,” or something like that? That’s really true of Bob [Caro]. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay.

Beyond providing a helpful context for my own battles with Walter (my editor for the bio), this explains my own process to me. It’s not just about perfectionism. It’s about getting it right. And everything matters: Structure, word choice, punctuation, which detail gets retained and which one gets cut.

Caro had to cut 350,000 words from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. He tells McGrath sadly, “There were things cut out of ‘The Power Broker’ that should not have been cut out,” and then shows him “his personal copy of the book, dog-eared and broken-backed, filled with underlining and corrections written in between the lines. Caro is a little like Balzac, who kept fussing over his books even after they were published.” It would be an understatement to say I can relate to that. Though I had to cut far fewer words from my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, there were things cut that should not have been cut. And I’ve seriously thought of marking up a published copy (due this September) to fix those omissions, or infelicitous changes in phrasing introduced during the copyediting (the copyeditor was unusually fond of passive voice). In looking at the proofs, I thought: Why did I allow the excision of Johnson’s favorite book, George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody?  My main reason was (and is) the fact that I can include it — and its satirical style’s influence on Johnson — in one of the afterwords for the 5-volume The Complete Barnaby. It’s hard to let this go, and I’m fortunate to have the luxury to hang on a bit longer. As de Waal writes near the end of his book, he has the feeling that he should “Just go home and leave these stories be. But leaving be is hard” (346).

Most of all, when reading Caro or de Waal, I think: my God, I wish I could write like them! I’m not in their league. Indeed, my league couldn’t find their league on a map. Describing the motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963, Caro writes,

Lyndon Johnson was far enough behind the Presidential limousine that the cheering for the Kennedys and the Connallys — for John Connally, some of it, for his onetime assistant, who had become his rival in Texas — was dying down by the time his car passed, and most of the faces in the crowd were still turned to follow the Presidential car as it drove away from them. So that, as Lyndon Johnson’s car made its slow way down the canyon, what lay ahead of him in that motorcade could, in a way, have been seen by someone observing his life as a foretaste of what might lie ahead if he remained Vice-President: five years of trailing behind another man, humiliated, almost ignored, and powerless.  The Vice-Presidency, “filled with trips . . . chauffeurs, men saluting, people clapping . . . in the end it is nothing,” as he later put it. (“The Transition,” The New Yorker, 2 Apr. 2012, 35-36)

Masterful.  I favor tighter sentences myself, but his epic style works well with his subject. We readers know that, in a few moments, President Kennedy will be assassinated; later that day, LBJ will become president. And Caro knows we know. So, he allows our knowledge to inform the scene, and instead focuses on creating Johnson’s (likely) experience at that moment — enduring the relative powerlessness of the Vice-Presidency.

De Waal writes lyrically and with great insight into what it means to be human. Early in the book, he observes, “Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return” (16).  Later, he considers his great grandparents, in Vienna, in the early 19-teens.  The “more assimilated Jews [the great grandparents] worry about these newcomers,” he writes: “their speech and dress and customs are not aligned to the Bildung of the Viennese. There is anxiety that they will impede assimilation.” At the end of this paragraph, de Waal concludes, “Maybe, I think, this is anxiety from the recently arrived towards the very newly arrived.  They are still in transit” (188). Describing his grandmother’s decision to burn letters from her mother (in part, he suggests, because they may mention the great-grandmother’s lovers), de Waal confesses, “There is something about burning all of those letters that gives me pause: why should everything be made clear and brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies? … Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain a space in which to live” (347).

This is the big conundrum of the researcher. To throw out or to keep? I tend towards the latter. (If I throw it out, I might need it later.) But de Waal is right: being encumbered by research (books, articles, photocopies from archives, etc.) grants one little space to live. Further, the time required to sustain research affords little time to winnow out and throw out. It’s hard to manage your archives and move forward with the next project — to say nothing of grading, teaching, editing, committee work, or, say, having a life.

So we keep things. However, as Robin Bernstein observes in her Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011), things are bearers of stories.  And, as de Waal notes, “It is not just that things carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too” (349).

They are. And they’ve been on my mind because — for any of my readers who may be in or near Manhattan Kansas next week — I’m giving a talk on this very subject, at 4pm, Tuesday, April 24, in the K-Sate Student Union’s Little Theatre.  The title is “Collaborating with the FBI, Reading Other People’s Mail and Taking Children’s Literature Seriously: Tales from Writing the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.” Free and open to the public. My talk will run about half an hour. There’ll be lots of stories.

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That’s Not in the Book, You Know: The Absolutely, Positively, Possibly Final Post Concerning the Editing of the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Krauss

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeThe index and (now proofread!) page proofs for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (forthcoming this September) are in the mail, heading back to the publisher.  To commemorate this occasion, here are yet more cuts and a few other changes — most of which I’m fine with, but others of which inspire more mixed feelings.

First, some cuts!  I started sketching categories for the index long before the book went into copy-editing phases; as a result, there were names in my draft of the index that no longer appear in the biography.  Here are some of those names and the cuts that prompted their omission.

Abrashkin, Ray

A reference to the co-creator of the Danny Dunn series got relegated to a footnote, then cut altogether.  Here’s the footnote version:

Ruth [Krauss] seems to have adapted her book herself: a draft of the lyrics, in her hand, appears on the back of some notes and sketches for Is This You?  That said, the Children’s Record Guild’s archives have an unsigned contract that credits Ray Abrashkin for writing the record.  Perhaps they collaborated?

I now believe that Krauss wrote the lyrics, though I wouldn’t completely rule out input from Abrashkin. One result of this omission is that the image of The Carrot Seed record now appears … nowhere near the place it’s mentioned in the book.  Originally, the record appeared twice in the text, once at the time it was released, and once when W.D. Snodgrass cited it in his essay on the poet’s tact.  The latter reference remains, but the earlier one (where the record’s image appears) has gone.  (For more about the Children’s Record Guild, check out David Bonner’s Revolutionizing Children’s Records.  Bonner, incidentally, is my source for that unsigned contract.)

Capote, Truman,

When it went into copyediting, the bio. also included this short paragraph (the “Marc” is Marc Simont, who illustrated four of Krauss’s books):

Ruth and Dave also saw Marc socially.  He recalled accompanying them to “a party in Greenwich Village, where a group of young men were doing a farewell party for Truman Capote.”  They had prepared “big signs saying ‘Ciao,’” suggesting that the party was in February 1949, when Capote was leaving for Italy.  But Capote didn’t show up.

If Capote had shown up, this would have been worth including.  He didn’t.  So, cutting this makes sense.

Diary of a Nobody, The,

One of Johnson’s favorite books.  Since I can work this into one of the Complete Barnaby afterwords, I agreed to omit it from the bio.  If I hadn’t had the Barnaby option, then I would have certainly argued that it remain — a writer’s favorite book should be included in the biography of that writer.

Ernst, Max,

Surrealist and father of Jimmy Ernst, who is in the book, as is Jimmy’s spouse, Dallas Ernst.

Flaxer, Abram,

Flaxer was a union organizer and the second husband of Crockett Johnson’s first wife.

Grossmith, George,

Grossmith, Weedon,

The co-authors of The Diary of a Nobody (see above).

Hirschfeld, Al,

In a draft from early May 2011, I still had a reference to Al Hirschfeld, but that disappeared prior to copy-editing phase.  The context was Johnson’s early New Masses cartoons (1934-1935):

            Stylistically, Johnson has not yet arrived at the Otto Soglow-esque minimalism for which he is famous. Although the detail is less abundant and the lines more fluid than his earliest work, these lines display more dramatic variations in thickness — beginning thin at an end, and then inflating to show the shadow of an elbow or to accentuate the nape of the neck, before slimming back down to a point. Unlike Crockett Johnson’s characteristic style, these lines often do not close, instead just suggesting the boundaries of a figure. The faces of those whom he satirizes even include elements of caricature. These features bring his early cartoons nearer to that of his contemporary Al Hirschfeld. Johnson lacks Hirschfeld’s delight in rendering minutiae, and uses a lesser degree of exaggeration, but there is an edge that softens in Johnson’s later, characteristic style — a style which would emerge in just a few years, and which he would not alter for the rest of his career.

No trace of this paragraph remains.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines,

The original paragraph provided a little more context for petitions Johnson and Krauss signed:

Before traveling abroad, Dave and Ruth began speaking out at home. Though they likely voted for President Johnson in 1964 (or, certainly, against Senator Barry Goldwater), Dave and Ruth started opposing Johnson’s foreign policy before his new term began. After the North Vietnamese’s alleged attack (which in fact never occurred) in the Gulf of Tonkin, the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the president carte blanche to escalate the Vietnam War.  Though the vast majority of Americans supported this, Dave and Ruth did not. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Dave was among the 75 national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and Women in the Arts, Concerned with Vietnam.  Joining him were old friends Kay Boyle, Antonio Frasconi, and Ad Reinhardt; New Masses-era colleagues Maurice Becker and Rockwell Kent; and Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, E. Y. Harburg, and Tillie Olsen.

Courtesy of the copy-editor (who, as I say, was charged with doing a lot of actual editing), the final version reads like this:

Before departing, however, they began speaking out against the Vietnam War, which had begun to escalate with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Johnson was among the seventy-five national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and Women in the Arts, Concerned with Vietnam.  Joining him were old friends Kay Boyle, Antonio Frasconi, and Ad Reinhardt; New Masses-era colleagues Maurice Becker and Rockwell Kent; and Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, E. Y. Harburg, and Tillie Olsen.

In retrospect, I wish I’d pushed back more on this one — and I encountered several such moments in the page proofs.  However, the copyedited text arrived with a quick deadline when I was already very, very busy.  I did my best, but had I more time to consider, I suspect I would have resisted a bit more.  Ah, well.  The copyeditor did make many improvements to the text.  At the page proofs phase, I of course notice only the changes that I dislike.  And I’ve changed some of those in the proofs phase — but only the critical ones, since changes at this stage require more labor from the press.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): movie posterKaye, Danny,

Reviewers compared Ruth Krauss’s The Great Duffy (1946, illustrated by Mischa Richter) to James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was adapted into a film starring Danny Kaye.  The Mitty film (1947), I had written, may be one reason why Krauss’s film treatment of her own The Great Duffy didn’t get picked up.  But that’s purely speculative.  Mention of her film treatment remains, but the Mitty movie has departed.

Kenny’s Window,

The first book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Introducing the reviews of Ruth Krauss’s I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (which he illustrated and which was published the same year), I had the following sentence: “Much praise went to Sendak, whose first picture book, Kenny’s Window (1956), won an honor award from the New York Herald Tribune Book festival that spring.”  That’s gone, and so is the need for this reference in the index.

Leask, Alexander,

A reference to an ancestor of David Johnson Leisk (Crockett Johnson).  I originally had a whole paragraph on this guy.  That got condensed to a passing reference here (David Sr. is Crockett Johnson’s father, and this scene takes place in the 19-teens):

At home, while the nieces played piano, David Sr. sang along, carrying the bass part on tunes like “Mother McCree” and “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”  The latter is a Scottish song allegedly composed by supporters of Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) — the son of James Edward Stuart, whom Dave’s ancestor Alexander Leask supported two hundred years earlier

The first sentence remains in the book; the second sentence has been cut.  So, in this case, we’ve gone from a paragraph to a sentence fragment to… nothing!

A lot of family members have (wisely) been cut:

Leask, Arthur (CJ’s great-great grandfather),

Leask, Christina (CJ’s aunt),

Leask, John (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Robert (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Thomas (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Thomas James (CJ’s great grandfather),

Leask, William (CJ’s distant ancestor),

Leisk, Ella (CJ’s cousin),

I was able to assemble quite a thorough genealogy of Crockett Johnson, but how interesting is this?  To me, very.  To others, not as much.  So, it’s gone.

Masses, The,

Art Young was a mainstay of The Masses, but also contributed to New Masses while Johnson was editor.  Young is still in the book, but the reference to his earlier career has left.

McCrea, Joel,

In a discussion of a 1948 Barnaby narrative, I’d invoked the great Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels (1941, starring Joel McCrea) as a point of comparison.  The entire paragraph is gone, but a version of it will return in The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 4: 1948-1949.

Mencken, H. L.,

I’m completely fine with this cut.  Krauss studied violin at the Peabody Conservatory of Music — Mencken was a frequent visitor at the time.  Himself a pianist, he was also friends with Gustav Strube, Peabody teacher (and conductor of the newly established Baltimore Symphony).  And he knew some of Krauss’s teachers at Peabody, too.  This deserved to be cut because the connection to Krauss is far too tenuous: sure, she likely attended the same symphony concerts as Mencken, and may have been aware of his Peabody connections.  But these connections are not sufficient to keep Mr. Mencken in.

I Led 3 Lives (advert for TV program)Philbrick, Herbert,

I had a very brief reference to Mr. Philbrick (itself condensed from an even longer mention).  It appeared in the context of the FBI’s monitoring of Johnson:

As Herbert Philbrick notes in his memoir, I Led Three Lives (the basis for the Emmy-nominated TV series, 1953-1956), being a successful informant requires convincing the Communists of one’s loyalty: obvious visits from federal agents would give the game away.

Is it necessary?  No.  And so, it’s gone.

Psychoanalyst and the Artist, The,

Book by Daniel E. Schneider, Ruth Krauss’s psychoanalyst — the biography still includes a brief quotation from the book, but its title is now relegated to a citation.

Schwed, Peter,

Johnson was friends with Fred Schwed, Peter’s brother.  But Peter — a Simon & Schuster editor — appeared in the context of his fellow Simon & Schuster editor Jack Goodman.  Goodman & Fred Schwed remain in the book, but Peter’s gone.  Incidentally, Fred Schwed is author of the classic satirical look at Wall Street, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? (1940, repub. 1955).

Searchinger, Marian,

Spouse of documentary filmmaker Gene Searchinger.  The Searchingers went on a vacation with Johnson and Krauss in the early 1950s, but that trip got cut.  Gene Searchinger is still in the book, though.  A number of his conversations with Johnson were quite illuminating.  I was saddened to discover, a few months ago, that Mr. Searchinger passed away in 2009.  I really enjoyed talking with him, and I think he would have enjoyed the biography.

Zigrosser, Carl,

In 1938, New Masses was planning an art supplement, thinking that such a feature might draw in more readers.  Johnson and contributing editor Herman Michelson went to the Weyhe Gallery to talk to Carl Zigrosser about this.  This entire paragraph has been cut.  Incidentally, someone looking for a project should consider publishing either all of or simply extracts from Zigrosser’s diaries.  I read them on microfilm in the Smithosnian’s Archives of American Art.  Meticulous, and fascinating.  Zigrosser knew everyone.

Zindel, Paul,

Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson went to parties thrown by Willard Maas and Marie Menken. So did Andy Warhol and Paul Zindel.  Warhol’s still in the book, but the copy-editor cut Zindel.  I let it stand, but now doubt that decision.


The changes that inspire the most mixed feelings are stylistic.  The copy-editor — who was also charged with editing the manuscript — made many helpful changes, which were valuable (and necessary) for reigning in my large manuscript.  Indeed, you can see many of the good changes in the list above, and in previous posts on this process.  In the copy-editing phase, I pushed back against some suggestions, and let others stand.  As noted above, the copy-edited manuscript arrived with a quick deadline when I lacked time to go through it with the degree of specificity I’d have preferred.  I did my best, but while reading the proofs I noticed some changes I wish I’d caught. I was able to correct some of them, but others had to remain.  With apologies to the copy-editor, these are some of the copy-editor’s changes that most rankled:

  1. Adding passive voice.  I suspect that this may from the copy-editor’s training in history, although I cannot say for certain.  I use passive only very rarely.  I restored most of my active voice, but sometimes let passive sentences stand.  In the proofs, I caught a number of instances in which traces of both sentences were there.  When I caught them, I crossed out the passive verb so that the text made sense.  I suspect, though, that I may have missed some.
  2. Making my sentences needlessly long.  I suspect that this, too, may derive from the copy-editor’s training in history — but I’m not sure.  My response may simply derive from the fact that I resist this trait common to an academic style. I dislike long, twisty academic sentences, and so I try to avoid them whenever I can.
  3. Making my paragraphs needlessly long.  I really want the book to have paragraphs of manageable length.
  4. Cramming all the dialogue together in a single paragraph instead of treating it as dialogue. Where possible, I’ve separated conversations out again.
  5. Cutting dialogue all together.  Dialogue helps create character.  Some of the conversations were clearly not neccessary.  But others,… I’m not so sure.  For example, I wish I’d retained more of Krauss’s last conversation with Sendak.

If I could have had a novelist (instead of an historian) as my copy-editor, that would have been ideal: I want this to read more like a novel, and less like a history. But, of course, I focus here on the changes that rankle because I forget the many (many!) beneficial changes instituted by the copy editor — who, let me repeat, made some very helpful suggestions.  I also focus on these things because I’ve been working on this book for over a dozen years, and (given that massive investment of time and energy) I want it to be the best that it can be. In sum, I focus on these things because I’m a perfectionist and thus have a hard time letting things go!

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)Anyway. Enough obsessing. It’s done. As I mentioned at the top, the marked-up page proofs and the index are on their way back to the publisher. And the biography will be out in the fall!  Even better, you won’t have to read yet another blog post in which I discuss writing the biography.  Probably.

 


Far, far too many posts on this blog relate to the writing of this biography.  Believe it or not, the list below does not even contain all such posts.  So, depending on your tolerance for tedium, you might proceed at your own risk here:

Posts tagged Crockett JohnsonRuth Krauss, or Biography may also be of interest.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 3. Does This Make My Manuscript Look Fat?

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI’d intended to post more of these in process, but literally had no time.  The manuscript was due back to the copy-editor yesterday — I mailed it today, and it will reach her Tuesday.  Some of her suggestions were dead-on, some were not, and others were somewhere in between.  I accepted the first type, rejected the second, and the third… required a lot of thought.  (The copy-editor was also charged with finding ways to reduce length.)  To help me evaluate my feelings about what to lose and what not to lose, I repeatedly asked myself: Does this change serve the story I’m trying to tell?

So. Here are some more things you will not see in Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming from UP Mississippi, fall 2012).

I kept coming back to this passage, but couldn’t come up with a way to restore it.  It was right near the beginning of chapter one, and uses a photo of infant Ruth Krauss to offer a glance forward at the woman she became:

She was an only child, and her parents doted on her.  In the above photo, six-month-old Ruth looks over her left shoulder at the camera, conveying the impression that she is in charge, and she wants you to know it.

The photo (of course) remains, the “doting” part has been worked into the previous paragraph, and the copy-editor did a nice job in condensing the family history.  I ultimately decide to let it go, since there are other moments in which an incident from her childhood permits us a glimpse of her future — which constitute some of my (clumsy, perhaps) attempts to create character.  Having no experience writing fiction but requiring the skills of a creative writer, writing this biography has pushed me more than any other project has.

Since this is a critical biography, I need to include some analysis of the creative works of Johnson and Krauss.  The final manuscript does indeed include a bit of this material, but some also got cut in this last round. Although analyses of Ruth Krauss’s verse remain, my thoughts on her poem “Yuri Gagarin and William Shakespeare” have been excised.  Here’s the beginning of poem (also quoted in the book):

Winnie: How sweet to be a cloud

W.S.: when daisies pied and violets

Winnie: floating in the blue

W.S.: and lady-smocks all silver-white

and cuckoo buds of yellow hue

Winnie: Iniquum fatum fatu

W.S.: Cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo

And here’s my analysis (which will not be in the book):

When a late sixteenth-century song about cuckolding encounters an early twentieth-century song of a bear pretending to be a cloud, we might be reminded that Winnie-the-Pooh’s song is also motivated by both desire and deceit: To get the honey he craves, he masquerades as a cloud.  Or we might not see it this way, having forgotten either Shakespeare’s song, or Milne’s, or both. Without the contexts of the originals, the combination may instead be whimsical, playful, and even lyrical.

I’m not conflicted about cutting this.  My other analyses of her verse are better than this, which is fine but not brilliant.  And so… it’s gone!

I did have a hard time excising narrative and, indeed, often resisted suggestions to remove narrative. The copy-editor, for instance, had a tendency to summarize a conversation.  But a conversation works better dramatically — it’s better for storytelling than a summary is.  So, here’s something I cut. Later in life, Crockett Johnson (known as Dave to his friends) grew interested in the Bible, and began reading it carefully:

Mischa Richter asked him, “Well, what about it?  Are you still reading the Bible?”

Dave responded, “I had to stop.  The begats got me.”

I permitted that cut because I have another similar conversation between him and Andy Rooney (which I restored). Also, Mischa Richter is well established in the book — he was a close friend of Johnson’s.  Rooney was not a close friend; they were acquainted, but that’s all.  So, this is a chance to give him a “walk-on” part, as it were.

Omitting examples of Johnson’s dry wit was particularly hard for me.  To offer another example, I ended up cutting this summer 1950 vacation that he and Ruth took with Gene and Marian Searchinger:

Back in Connecticut and unaware that they were under investigation, Dave and Ruth drove off for a brief summer holiday with their friends Marian and Gene Searchinger, a filmmaker who was then working on NBC’s Today show. Each couple in their own car, they traveled up to Nova Scotia. Planning to park the cars on the ferry, they were surprised to learn that one needed to reserve spaces well in advance.  Between two pillars, there was one very small space left on the boat, just large enough for Dave’s little Austin Tudor sedan.  They left the Searchingers’ car on the mainland, and the four of them toured Nova Scotia in Dave’s small car.

They didn’t mind the close quarters, but getting a decent cup of coffee was a challenge. Since all four travelers required regular doses of caffeine, they developed a system. When they came upon a promising restaurant or cafe, one member of the group would enter, and order a cup.  He or she would then signal to the others whether they should come in or not.  The signal was a fist with one finger, two fingers, or three fingers extended — depending on the quality of the coffee.  After the trip, Dave gave Gene a gift commemorating their Nova Scotia holiday.  On a piece of wood, Dave painted a hand rising out of an ocean of coffee: only one finger was sticking up.

I’m a little conflicted about having cut this, but how important is it to the larger narrative?  I ultimately decided that it wasn’t as important to keep as some other stories were, and (a bit reluctantly) let it go.

On the whole, the result of my collaboration with the copy-editor is a better manuscript. That said, I do wish I’d had more time with this. At the busiest time of the term, I’ve had to respond to a heavily-edited manuscript that represents a dozen years of my labor. On the other hand, there is almost no moment during this semester that would have been great timing. The past four months have been the busiest of my professional life.

But that’s always the way. Just when you think you couldn’t get any busier, you do. Or, at least, I do.  And the important thing is that the manuscript is better for this work.  I’m really looking forward to sharing it with the world — in the fall of 2012!


Should this post have proven even slightly interesting, then there’s a remote chance that posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography might fail to bore you.  Indeed, if you have read to this point and do not find yourself slipping into unconsciousness, you might test your stamina with some of these related posts.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 2. The Dog Problem.

Crockett Johnson, BarkisImmersion in the thoroughly copy-edited manuscript has prevented me from getting more cuts up here, but there are plenty to share.  As noted in the post from earlier in the week, the copy-editor was also charged with reducing the length of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How An Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming from UP Mississippi in September 2012).  So, the editing is quite… extensive.

She’s very thorough and, while I do not agree with all of her suggestions, our collaboration is producing a much stronger manuscript.  It forces me to reconsider each choice, every word, everything I’d decided to include.  Sometimes, a cut is easy to make.  For example, I had no trouble following her recommendation to cut this paragraph from a chapter on Crockett Johnson‘s (a.k.a. Dave’s) childhood:

The Queens of Dave’s youth strained under its rapid growth.  Between 1910 and 1925, Corona experienced a housing boom that ended only when there was no more land on which to build. Public School 16 opened in 1908, was already overcrowded by 1911, and siphoned off its excess population when Public School 92 opened in 1913 — about a year after Dave began attending P.S. 16. Although the development was great news for someone in the lumber business (as Dave’s dad was), the unpaved streets were treacherous for automobiles, and the absence of both speed limits and mandatory drivers’ licenses made crossing the road dangerous for pedestrians.

Other examples convey the urbanization of Queens; this one is less interesting than the others.  So, away it goes.

What I find most difficult are those I’ve come to think of under the heading “The Dog Problem.”  These are examples that, while still somewhat contextual, nonetheless inform our sense of who Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss were, or of what their work meant.  I call them the “Dog Problem” because the copy-editor has thrown out all stories concerning Johnson’s dogs — or, at least, all of them through Chapter 17 (I’ve not finished going through all of the manuscript).  He was a dog person, and so dogs were a major part of his life and hers.  As a result, I’m uncomfortable with these omissions.  It’s not enough to note that they had dogs (a fact which she does retain).  On the other hand, how many of these dog stories does the book really need?  My compromise, at this point, has been to restore the 1947 dog story, to relocate the early 1940s story to The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1 (coming from Fantagraphics, June 2012), and to omit this one, from Johnson’s first marriage:

Mary Elting and Franklin “Dank” Folsom found them great company, full of humorous stories. Dave and Charlotte had two dogs, one smart and the other not. They used to leave their screen door unlocked (“nobody locked doors in the Village in those days,” Mary says), allowing the dogs to go out into the garden when they pleased. The smart dog figured out how to open the door to come back inside, but the dumb dog did not. When it was raining, the smart dog liked to dash inside, and close the door behind him, leaving the other one out in the rain. Dave chuckled at the antics of his pets.

Johnson’s experience with dogs inform the creation of Gorgon (Barnaby’s dog), Barkis (from his short-lived, single-panel comic), and other dog characters.  They’re less of an influence on Krauss’s work, but very much a part of her daily life.  So, the book ought to have at least one dog story… and now it does!

One “Dog Problem” I’m struggling with right now is from Chapter 17.  She’s marked this paragraph for deletion:

Ruth and Dave also befriended psychiatrist Gil Rose, his wife Ann and their children, after they moved to Rowayton in 1955. An aspiring writer of children’s books, Ann admired Ruth’s work.  Gil enjoyed talking about psychology with Ruth, and often went sailing with Dave on the Five Mile River. One day, as they set out on the river, Dave said, “You know, this river is exactly five miles long.”  Gil, thought, ah, what a wonderful congruence of truth and language: the river is named Five Mile River because it’s five miles in length. After a few moments, Dave added, “Of course, that wasn’t the original name. The original name was, after the fact that there were five mills on the river, it was called the Five Mills River.” In other words, Gil says, “so much for language and truth.”  That, he notes, was typical of Dave’s sense of humor — “iconoclastic, pithy.”

The book contains other examples of Dave’s wit.  Does it need this one?  Well, in the sense that there are other examples, no, I don’t suppose it does need it.  On the other hand, in the sense that it sets up a later sailing story (that I’m definitely going to retain), it is important.  The anecdote also helps create character, which is good.  Dave’s reticent tendencies have made him particularly hard to bring to life.  Ruth was much more outgoing, outspoken, lively.  As a result, she’s much easier to animate on the page.  So, I’ve marked this one with a post-it note.  I’m thinking about it, and will return to it later.  Should you have any thoughts on whether or not to retain it, do feel free to share them in the comments section, below.


If you failed to find this post unbearably dull, you might also enjoy posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography.  Indeed, if you have read this far and yet remain conscious, why not try reading some of these related posts?  Go on.  I dare you.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss Biography: Final Cuts, Part 1. What’s in a name?

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI know. You thought that me posting omitted portions of the biography was over months ago. So did I. Thing is, the copyeditor for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How An Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming September 2012) was also charged with getting the manuscript shorter still.  And so… there are further cuts.  On the mistaken assumption that two or three people might find these interesting, I’ll share a few.  Today’s concern the derivation of surnames — Krauss and Leisk (Crockett Johnson‘s real name was David Johnson Leisk).  I find this sort of information interesting, but there are other proposed cuts that I find even more worthy of keeping.  So, these items (formerly of Chapters 1 and 2, respectively) are cut.

Derived from the German kraus, Ruth’s surname means “curly” — and her hair was curly.  Though it probably originates in Bohemia, Krauss and its variants also appear in neighboring countries Austria and Germany.

The name Leask may derive from the Norse or Danish word for “a stirring fellow,” or it may be a diminutive of lisse, Anglo-Saxon for “happy.”  Johnson’s ancestors spell the name Leask until the latter half of the nineteenth century, when they also spell it Leisk. These two spellings may explain the name’s variant pronunciations — “Lihsk” or “Leesk.” Johnson pronounced it “Lihsk.”

Are there more cuts to share? you ask.  (Or, possibly, you don’t ask.)  Yes.  Yes, there are.  Plus there’s lots more on the bio, stored away in various corners of this blog.  Posts tagged Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss or Biography are probably going to lead you to something connected to the biography.  OK, a few won’t  But most will.  Anyway.  Here are some related posts:

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Preview: biography of Johnson and Krauss. First sentence & last sentence.

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)The manuscript is still going to be cut further, but — as it currently stands — here are the first and final sentences of the book.

First sentence (from the Introduction):

When a stranger knocked on Crockett Johnson’s front door one mild Friday in August 1950, he was not expecting was a visit from the FBI.

Final sentence (from the Epilogue):

There, they will find a very special house, where holes are to dig, walls are a canvas, and people are artists, drawing paths that take them anywhere they want to go.

Is that too much of a “tease”?  Yes?  Well, OK,… here’s a tiny bit more.  Each chapter begins with an epigraph from a work by Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss.  Here’s the first one (from the Introduction):

            “Few stories are completely perfect,” said the lion.

            “That’s true,” said Ellen, leaving the playroom. “And otherwise it’s a wonderful story. Thank you for telling it to me.”

— Crockett Johnson, The Lion’s Own Story (1963)

So, yes, technically, the first sentence is really “‘Few stories are completely perfect,’ said the lion.”  And, if we’re going to be truly precise, then I expect the last words of the book will probably come from the index.  Since the task of creating the index will not occur until after the book has been typeset, I’m not sure yet what the final entry will be, but my current guess is “Zolotow, Charlotte.”

And now, some actual news about the book:

  • Very grateful to everyone who has suggested alternate titles.  I’ve sent my leading contenders to my editor.  Should other promising suggestions come in, I will of course call his attention to them.  When we decide on the title, I will announce the winner on the blog.  Thanks to everyone who has participated!
  • Things are moving at last.  I submitted the completed manuscript at the end of 2010.  I revised it many times, with each revision turned back by the press as insufficient.  Some issues were stylistic, while others concerned length (I cut 23,000 words).  I submitted the vastly improved final version on June 16, 2011.  As of this past Friday (August 26), I learned that it is now going to the copyeditor, who — in addition to copyediting — will help trim the manuscript further.  Earlier this month, I received an epic Author’s Questionnaire: I turned in all 25 pages of it today.  Also last week, I received (form the press) the sorts of queries that signal a project moving into the next phase.  I’d mislabeled a couple of images; three other images were at scanned at too low a resolution (and so I’m working on getting hi-res ones); there were a few questions about permissions (now resolved); and so on.
  • The above is good news, but it also means that the publication date will not be April 2012 (as I’d initially reported), nor June 2012 (as I’d next reported).  Expect the book no sooner than August or September of 2012.  Thank you for your continued patience!

And thanks to everyone who has helped!  The Acknowledgements lists literally hundreds of people, some of whom are no longer with us.  Thank you to all!

Should you have the stamina, you might wish to peruse the abundance of other posts tagged…

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 8

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeOn Monday, I finished the eighth edit of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and sent it to my editor.  I’m really happy with all of the edits I’ve made.  I finally understand his advice, and have cut anything that feels purely “completist,” and focused instead on the critical bio., keeping in mind a “trade”/general audience.  I have also removed any in-text image descriptions, taken out all discursive footnotes, condensed the footnotes (no need to replicate what’s already in the bibliography), restructured the early chapters (so that they once again alternate between Krauss’s life and Johnson’s), and attended to the second reader’s suggestions.  In sum, it’s good — without question, the best version of this manuscript to date.  So, that’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’ve fixed everything but word count.  It’s 23,000 words shorter than the last version, but still exceeds the word limit he’d like.  With notes, it’s 136,250 words.  He wants it no longer than 125,000.  My figure of 136,250 does not include bibliography or acknowledgments — and his limit of 125,000 does include both.  If he’ll accept it, I will then burn everything (full ms., plus images, permissions, etc.) to disc and send it to the press.  If he won’t, then I’m not sure what will happen.  But here are three possible outcomes:

  1. I’ve done my best, editing most paragraphs at least twice, often reading things aloud (sometimes to Karin, who has also offered her suggestions).  But I can’t see where else I should be cutting: either he or another editor will need to offer specific advice on what should go.  So, that’s one possibility.
  2. Another possibility is that I try a ninth time, but I won’t have time to pursue round nine until the fall. Receiving comments in early May, rather than earlier in the year, has complicated my work schedule for the early summer months, and I already have work lined up for the rest of the year.  Even in the fall, I’d need to squeeze this in amidst other tasks.
  3. A third possibility — which I really hope I don’t have to pursue — is to consider withdrawing the manuscript and taking it elsewhere.  I really, really do not want to do this.  For one thing, it would mean re-doing all the permissions… which I also really, really do not want to do.  For another, sheesh, what a mess that would be.  I just don’t want to go there.  If I have to go there to get this published, I will.  But it’s definitely a “last resort” option.

SisyphusMostly, I can’t bear the psychic burden of this unfinished project any longer.  I began this book during the waning years of the Clinton administration.  For the past year and a half (I sent in the complete manuscript in December 2009), I have been doing what the press asks of me, and then receiving feedback that indicates I’ve failed to do what the press has asked of me.  Each time, I figure, well, I’ve misunderstood — let me try again.  I try again, and the cycle repeats itself.  The whole thing has worn me out.

Having said that, from my editor’s point of view, I must seem a particularly slow study: he gives me advice, but I continue to make the same mistakes.  Further, I am positive that the manuscript can be better than it now is.  I’m also positive that it can be shorter than it now is.  I’m sure that further edits would improve it.  My problem is: I cannot see what those edits might be.

One reason — and one reason that writing this book has been more challenging than any other I’ve written — is that this book requires me to be a creative writer.  I’ve had to learn how to structure a narrative, create character, and do all the things that creative writers do.  I have no training in either writing or editing fiction.

Another reason that this has been so challenging is that I feel constrained by the facts.  Biography is informed speculation, but I’m wary of straying from what I know for certain.  So, for instance, the second reader asked for “some vivid details” about the moment that Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss met.  That’s a great idea, and would definitely improve the story.  Unfortunately, I have very little information on their meeting.  They met at a party either on Fire Island or in Greenwich Village (sources differ).  Of meeting Dave (Crockett Johnson) Ruth liked to say “We met and that was it!”  Also, they were both living in Greenwich Village at the time.  And that’s all that I know.  So, I’d already written this:

Though she and Dave were working in different parts of Manhattan, both lived in Greenwich Village.  That fall, at a party in the Village or on Fire Island (sources differ), the outgoing, energetic Ruth met the wry, laconic Dave.  He was tall and taciturn.  Seven inches shorter, she was slim, exuberant, and ready to speak her mind.

In an effort to follow the second reader’s advice, I added:

Her exuberance drew him out of his natural reticence, and into conversation. His calm, grounded personality balanced her turbulent energy.

I used what I knew about their respective personalities to infer a sense of what their meeting might have been like.  And then, the paragraph concludes with what I’d already written:

They were complimentary opposites who felt an immediate attraction toward one another.  As Ruth liked to say, “We met and that was it!”

The two additional sentences (about her exuberance and his calmness) are slightly more speculative than I like to be, but I like the emotional content they bring to the scene.

Well to keep with the “outtakes” in the title of this post, here are a few more cuts.  Generally speaking, Crockett Johnson didn’t have art hanging on the walls and was skeptical of those who did.  But he did have Art Young’s last Christmas card hanging up.  That’s significant for many reasons: their shared left politics, the fact that they knew each other, and Young’s status as one of the great political cartoonists.  I still mention the card in this chapter (Chapter 11) and elsewhere touch on their acquaintance, but I’ve cut a lot of my description of this card, which:

reproduced at its top a glimpse of Young’s 1916 card.  That earlier card featured a caricature of Young, arms spread wide, his right hand pointing to “1916” and his left holding his cane aloft.  Framed by sunlight breaking through the clouds, its caption read “The road to tomorrow.” The lower two thirds show a much older Young, his right hand a fist with its thumb pointing up to “1944” and “FOUR FREEDOMS” (with “maybe more” in smaller letters below).  In the background, light breaks through clouds, as swastikas fly away in retreat. This caption read, “It’s a long road, but now we are getting somewhere.” Though Young is older and slightly hunched over, he looks determined and hopeful. Fascism is being routed, and perhaps can be expanded.

I’ve retained the card’s message but cut the extensive description (reproduced above).  Young died in late December 1943.

Had I space enough, I would love to reproduce Johnson’s entire Bosco ad parody in Chapter 20.  It’s hilarious, and gonzo before the term “gonzo” existed.  I don’t have space, and have in this round of editing trimmed the summary even further.  Fortunately for you, you can see the whole thing on my blog.

Likewise, I’ve trimmed my analyses of Ruth’s poetry.  I still retain some, but have also cut such passages as this one, which discusses two of her poems published in the first issue of the short-lived Nadada (1964) — an issue that included work by Allen Ginsburg, Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski, and Ted Berrigan.

Ruth’s more experimental contribution, the brief “Song,” juxtaposes images from mass culture with the repeated line “I was thinking of you,” as in: “when further down the page I saw Eat Five Kinds of Apples from Just one Miracle Tree / I was thinking of you.” In contrast, the longer “Poem” offers a lyrical exploration of Ruth’s favorite theme — the coming of spring. It begins, “I’d much rather sit there in the sun / watching the snow drip from the trees / and the milkman’s footsteps fill up with water / and the shadow of the spruce tree branches waving / over the sparkle on the leftover snow / and the water dripping in front of my eyes.”

I retain, elsewhere, some analysis of her verse, but this is one example of close-reading that just slowed the narrative down too much.

After Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) died, Ruth struggled on her own.  I have many examples of her relying on a boarder to help her cope with life’s daily challenges.  So, I’ve cut this example from Chapter 27:

When a blizzard hit in February 1978, water from the Sound rolled up the long driveway, pushed open the garage door, and flooded their cars.  Fortunately, Binnie and a visiting boyfriend — Ruth had no problem with male guests — were able to struggle with the cars, and get them cleaned up again.  The effects of the storm were too much for Ruth to face on her own.

Indeed, I have other examples featuring Binnie Klein.  I realized that one reason I’d been retaining this one is that the Blizzard of ’78 has special resonance for me.  When it hit, I was in grade school, in Massachusetts.  Three feet of snow closed school for a week, and snowplows created snowbanks over five feet tall.  That was significant for me, but not for Ruth and nor for this book.

All of the above were definitely superfluous and the book is better without them.  As I say, I’m sure the book could be improved by removing other pieces — only, I lack the ability to figure out what those pieces are.

By way of conclusion, here’s (Doozies creator) Tom Gammill parody of a Ken Burns-style documentary on R.C. Harvey’s Milt Caniff biography.  In addition to being funny, this clip makes me feel a lot better about my own manuscript. 900 pages?  Mine is a double biography and it ain’t even half that long.

Incidentally, that’s Jean Schulz (widow of Charles M.) near the end, using Harvey’s book as a nutcracker.

Gluttons for punishment may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

Image sources: Crockett Johnson, from Ruth Krauss’s How to Make an Earthquake (1954).  The animated Sisyphus gif comes from the homepage of my friend, the late Desmond Dewsnap (1962-2004).

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 7

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeThe good news. I’m making progress, and — currently up to Chapter 20 (of 28) — have cut far more (already) than I did on the last round of revisions.  I have a clearer sense of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (UP Mississippi, June 2012).  I can better see what belongs in the manuscript and what can be safely trimmed.  I’m happy with what I’ve cut: I think the omissions make the book stronger.  Since making these revisions have required me to read the manuscript very closely, I’ve also refined the prose here and there.

The bad news.  This is extremely painstaking work.  Sometimes, I have to read a paragraph many times in order to figure out what goes and what stays.  This evening, Karin kindly helped me work through Chapter 18 — which was great, because it can be hard for me to see when something could be trimmed or isn’t working as well.  And, to be perfectly frank, though I am doing my best, I cannot see my way to getting the manuscript down to the 125,000-word compromise my editor and I agreed on.  If that 125,000 words included only the main text and the notes, well… then I’d be coming close.  But it doesn’t — it includes the whole thing, including the massive bibliography.

Here’s something I struggled with cutting — largely because I like the image of Dave (Crockett Johnson) driving his tan Austin, racing the river.  The incident, cut from Chapter 14, takes place on a vacation that he and Ruth took with filmmaker Gene Searchinger and his wife Marian, c. 1950:

Gene was fascinated by Nova Scotia’s tidal bore: When the tide comes in to the Bay of Fundy, it temporarily reverses the river’s direction as the ocean surges upstream. Having brought his movie camera, Gene decided to film it, with the idea of showing it on Today. To give a sense of just how fast the water moved, Gene filmed Dave driving along the edge of the river, glancing over his shoulder to see if he could keep up with the surging current. The footage never aired, but (if it has not been thrown away) somewhere in NBC’s vaults is film of a tall bald man, in a tan Austin, racing the river.

I cut it because there’s another, more telling anecdote from the same holiday.  And, though this image makes me happy, it doesn’t advance the narrative.

Some of the easiest things to cut have been items that, though too detailed for the bio., are not too detailed for The Complete Barnaby (Fantagraphics, 5 vols., 2012-2014).  So, those items will appear in the Fantagraphics volumes.  Johnson’s etymology of “Cushlamochree!” (Mr. O’Malley’s signature expression) will not be in the bio., but it will be in The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 1.

Crockett Johnson, "Just because your greedy workmen decide to go on strike I can't have a new Mercedes. Somehow it doesn't seem fair." From New Masses. 7 Aug 1934

I cut the paragraph below from Chapter 4 because it struck me as too technical, and because I’d already spent time in this section on Johnson’s New Masses cartoons.  Though I like this, it just seemed too much for this point in the book:

Stylistically, Johnson has not yet arrived at the Otto Soglow-esque minimalism for which he is famous. Although the detail is less abundant and the lines more fluid than his earliest work, these lines display more dramatic variations in thickness — beginning thin at an end, and then inflating to show the shadow of an elbow or to accentuate the nape of the neck, before slimming back down to a point. Unlike Crockett Johnson’s characteristic style, these lines often do not close, instead just suggesting the boundaries of a figure. The faces of those whom he satirizes even include elements of caricature. These features bring his early cartoons nearer to that of his contemporary Al Hirschfeld. Johnson lacks Hirschfeld’s delight in rendering minutiae, and uses a lesser degree of exaggeration, but there is an edge that softens in Johnson’s later, characteristic style — a style which would emerge in just a few years, and which he would not alter for the rest of his career.

This next bit comes from Chapter 5, just after Ruth Krauss has arrived in London, c. 1938-1939.  Ruth did not plan this trip particularly well.  She met Elwyn (named below) on the ship over, and he introduced her to the woman with whom she would stay in London.  Here’s a little more about Elwyn, whom she elsewhere describes as “dopey”:

On her second day in London, Elwyn introduced Ruth to “another guy,” whom invited Ruth to call.  When she reached his house and rang the bell, his landlady stuck her head out of the window.

“Yes?”

Ruth asked for her tenant.

The landlady replied, “You’re well out of it, me girl.  They’ve come and took ’im in the night!”

Via some other friends, Ruth later investigated this claim, and it was true: the police had taken him, though “unjustly.”

Before Elwyn could introduce her to other questionable young men,

The narrative then picks up with Ruth’s bicycle trip, which I have included.

I’d planned to post more cuts, and to do so more frequently, but these revisions — and other tasks — are proving so consuming that I’ve had little time for the blog.  As ever, thanks for reading.  Look for the bio. of Johnson and Krauss in about a year’s time!

The patient and the masochistic may enjoy other entries in the Interminable Editing of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

Image sources: Crockett Johnson, from Ruth Krauss’s How to Make an Earthquake (1954); Crockett Johnson, from microfilm of New Masses, 7 Aug. 1934 (scanned in by Marxist Internet Archive).

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How to Write a Book

Since I’m an English professor and this advice derives from my experience, the following will be more pertinent to writers of non-fiction than it will to writers of fiction.  For good advice on fiction (and on writing in general), please read Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

1. There is no one foolproof way to write a book.  The main thing you need to do is write.

2. Write the book you’d like to read.

3. If this is a scholarly book, figure out what questions you want to answer, and then draw upon whichever critical methodologies will help you answer them.  To put this another way, I align myself with no one critical approach: the questions I’m asking determine the approach I use.  For a pair of essays on Don DeLillo and gender, I took a feminist approach, but for “Don DeLillo’s Return to Form: The Modernist Poetics of The Body Artist” (Contemporary Literature, 2001) I was an old-school formalist — heavily influenced by Arthur Saltzman’s This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction. For “Horton Hears a Heil!” (the second chapter of Dr. Seuss: American Icon), I was very historicist, but for that book’s fifth chapter, I was more eclectic, more cultural studies.  Experiment until you find what method works, and then be practical — deploy approaches best-suited to your questions.
Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2011

4. Write regularly. Sometimes you write 50 pages to get 10 good ones, but other times you write 10 pages to get 10 good ones.  Once you have text, you can revise, reshape, edit, and so on.  But you need the text first.

5. When I’m writing a book, I often think in terms of writing chapters.  When I’m writing a chapter, I often think in terms of writing individual paragraphs.  When I’m writing paragraphs, I just focus on the sentences.  In other words: take this one step at a time.  Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become chapters, chapters add up to form a book.  You’ll get there.  Just keep writing.

6. Write in whatever order makes sense to you.  For academic books, I often write the sections out of order — I write the pieces of the larger work as they grab my attention.  Later, I figure out their sequence in the book, and revise accordingly.  This method works well because I tend to think of each chapter as a stand-alone essay that explores one facet of the larger question or questions.  When writing a narrative, as I did for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming June 2012), I worked mostly in chronological order.  But only mostly.  I had written versions of later pieces (such as 1950-1955) earlier in the process.  I also wove in other information as I found it, and trimmed sections that went on for too long.

7. Write in whatever medium makes sense to you at that moment.  I do most of my writing on a computer.  However, when I’ve been stuck, I’ve also written longhand.  And I’ve jotted down ideas and sentences on scraps of paper, post-it notes, concert programmes, even the iPhone’s “Notes” app.

8. Write whenever you can.  If you can set aside a specific time each day, that’s ideal.  Some people work best in the mornings, others in the evenings.  If you can’t set a precise daily routine, then just grab pieces of time where you find them — an hour here, 15 minutes there, and so on. (Since I can’t set a daily routine, this is what I do.) The main thing is to write regularly — preferably every day.

9. Read good writers, and then aspire to write as well as they do.  From reading other writers, I learn about style, narrative structure, sentence structure, ways of thinking, and … everything.  Mike Davis‘s City of Quartz taught me how to structure The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity.  Aiming for accessible but smart literary criticism, I wrote Dr. Seuss: American Icon under the influence of The New Yorker — especially Anthony Lane and Adam GopnikGil Rodman‘s Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend helped me figure out how to write Chapter 6 (on Seuss’s legacy) of that book.  Many, many books have influenced the biography of Johnson and Krauss: Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club helped me figure out how and why to launch a confident digression into contextual material, Carol Sklenicka‘s Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life taught me how to create character, and many writers taught me the importance of ending a chapter on something suggestive.  Most of these books have little or nothing to do with the subjects of my book.  I saw them solving problems that I was having, and then borrowed or adapted their solutions for my work.

10. Save to help you delete. Worried about “killing your darlings”? Don’t fret. Just save the current manuscript with yesterday’s date, and then close that document.  Open up the manuscript again, give it a new file name, and — knowing that you have a copy of all of those “darlings” — be ruthless.  Cut, reword, restructure.  It’s much easier to do what needs to be done if you already have a backup copy.  I do this often, and rarely do I re-open the older versions.  But knowing that they’re there helps me move forward.

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (1979)11. The two most important things I learned from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (Third Ed., 1979) are: 1. “Omit needless words.”  2. “Write with nouns and verbs.”  When I’m writing or editing, I apply these rules all the time.

Explaining the first point, Strunk and White state, “Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell” (23).  (Neither Strunk nor White believed in gender-inclusive pronouns: so, please edit the preceding pronouns according to your taste.)  Elaborating on the second point, they tell us: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.  The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (71).  Though careful “not to disparage adjectives and adverbs,” they argue that, in general, “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color” (72).

12. “Writer’s block” is a myth.  If one part of your book is giving you trouble, then write another part.  Or get up, take a walk, and come back to the troubling bit.  Or write about the trouble you’re having.  Or write through the trouble.  But keep going.

13. To those who say “I don’t know that I have the time or energy to write a book,” I’d respond: “If you really believe that, then you don’t and you won’t.  But if writing this book is important to you, you’ll find the time and summon the energy.”  Of course, if writing the book isn’t that important to you, that’s OK, too. Writing a book is a lot of work, and there may well be more pleasant ways for you to spend your time.

14. Finally, if any of the preceding methods do not work for you, then ignore them.  Write in whatever way or ways you find most effective.  Realize that what works may vary from project to project, and even from day to day.  As I said at the outset, there is no one foolproof way to write a book.  Mostly, what you have to do is… keep writing.

Related posts from Nine Kinds of Pie:

Recently finished a dissertation and want to transform it into a book?  Begin by reading this excerpt from William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (Princeton UP, 2005).  Then, read the rest of the book.

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