UNWRITING, EDITING, TAYLORING, PRUNING…: FITTING THE WORD COUNT

English is an infinitely flexible language and so, the word ‘unwrite’ does exist. Oxford Online ignores it but not Merriam-Webster: “to obliterate from writing: expunge, rescind”. I have also comes across an article by learned Laurence Lerner, “Unwriting Literature” (New Literary History, 22: 3, Summer 1991, 795-815) and an article in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, by Karen Blumenthal. She is the one that uses the verb in the sense I mean –more or less.

I don’t mean by ‘unwrite’ the effort made at having to “rip out my work to fix mistakes” as she does in her embroidery and her young adult fiction, but rather the need to cut off from one’s work that for which there is no room. She means cases that have to do with expunging material that is not strictly needed for the internal coherence of the text; I mean rather, having to cut material that makes perfect sense but that can’t fit the pre-given word count I need to respect. In both cases, yes, “thanks to unwriting, days of work became a mere 10 lines of text.” Or less.

Here’s the particular case that has been driven me bananas in the last few months. The research group I belong to, ‘Constructing New Masculinities’ (https://www.ub.edu/masculinities/) is working on a volume on alternative masculinities, Moving Ahead, about which I am truly excited. I decided to contribute a chapter on Orson Scott Card’s hero Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins, of whom you’ll hear plenty when Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of Ender’s Game hits the screen in November (if you’re an SF fan, of course you know Ender!).

Now, Ender appears in many, many texts since the Enderverse is a multimedia megatext in constant expansion –I focused on ‘just’ five novels: Ender’s Game, Ender in Exile, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind. The notes alone occupied thirty pages, the first draft 16,000 words. Here’s the corner I painted myself into very naively: I’m only allowed 4,800 words as there are many other contributors to the book (logically!). After gruelling pruning of the branches that needn’t be there, my article is now at 4,825 words, ready for a last thorough unwriting.

To be honest, it’s a better article than the 16,000 word version and, incredibly, I argue more or less the same points. I have sweated out, however, every single sentence, happy that English can accommodate so much meaning in its synthetic nature (no way you can do that in circumlocutious Spanish). I haven’t passed the article yet onto trusted readers, so I have no idea whether it works but I hope it does (I had to summarise five novels, remember, while I argued that patriarchal Card quashes Ender’s atypical masculinity to prevent it from becoming a real alternative).

In the good old times, you could write as much as you wanted for instance in your PhD dissertation –mine, on monstrosity, is itself a monster at almost 600 pages. Last week a doctoral student of mine was told that any manuscript over 250 pages runs the risk of remaining unpublished as, apparently, costs double past that mark. She is aiming for 400 pages at the last count, against my injunction not to write more than 350. Articles of 10,000 words are now a rarity and, let’s be honest about this, a trial for our patience. So, yes, 4,800 sounds about right, just as 2,500 is the perfect measure for conference papers. In our rushed times, our attention span is fast dwindling –Twitter will kill it off for good…

What kills me is that to reach the 2,500 or the 4,800, even in ‘simple’ cases which ‘just’ one text under analysis, I usually must write four times more and then spend weeks agonizing about how to reduce my big trees down to bonsai size. I unwrite, as you can see, much more than I write (except here, thankfully…). Now, English lacks the very colourful Spanish verb ‘jibarizar’, which I first heard philosopher Antonio Marina use, and which is exactly what I must do to my articles –this is why as I unwrite I think of bizarre mummified heads (and of bonsais, certainly).

What is the recipe? The first thing to go is the bibliography you only mention (see Smith 2009) but that, anyway, you spent time reading, underlining and assimilating. Use as few quotations as possible, which is hard in our times of sprawling bibliography, and as short as reasonable. Second, off with the footnotes –none will learn from my article that Card based the abusive relationship between Ender and his brother Peter on his own with elder brother Ray (this was a hard one to let go). Third, one can always be less loquacious and communicate the same ideas in fewer words, from 10% to 50% (less than that and you sound too hard-boiled!!).

Ironically, I agree with Laura Pallarés, an ex-student interested in writing the first PhD dissertation ever on Card (if she can afford UAB’s fees…), that Ender is enough to fill in not one but several dissertations, of 250 pages and even longer.

So, there we are: size matters after all.

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