Cut, cut, cut

Does my editor have no mercy? It's not easy being an op-ed writer.

quill 88 (photo credit: )
quill 88
(photo credit: )
If there is one word that characterizes Judaism, it is discipline. An observant Jew is, theoretically at least, a disciplined Jew. He cannot eat what he wants when he wants to; he must pray at certain hours, must exercise restraint in every aspect of life. Delicious activities like gossip and talebearing are denied him. There is no area of human life that is not covered by the discipline and self-denial of Torah and Halacha. But there is one area of life requiring much discipline that is not covered by Torah law: the writing of op-ed columns. What does discipline have to do with the writing of columns? Everything. To wit: For many years - unscrutinized by verbally parsimonious editors - I wrote a column for Tradition magazine. There were no restrictions on length except my own good sense - which always permitted me 3,000-5,000 words. (The fact that I was editor-in-chief might have had something to do with this.) So you can imagine the writer's shock that hit me when - in doing columns for the Post - I was informed that my limit was 1,000 words per column, strictly enforced. (If he was in a magnanimous mood, the editor might stretch it to 1,200 words. Someone once said: If you do not strike oil within those limits, stop boring. Now, 1,000 words may seem like a lot, but not when you try to write something that hopefully has some substance. (I know, I know: the Hebrew Ten Commandments totals less that 175 words, and the Gettysburg address has only 280. But I must admit that I am neither God nor Lincoln.) This writer normally writes a first draft that - much as he tries to be economical - runs over 3,000 words. Then begins the tough part. He reviews his draft and begins to ask himself painful questions: Is this paragraph repetitive? Can that idea be expressed more concisely? Are three adjectives required here when one will suffice? Thus begins the process of weeding out. Precious phrases are eliminated, eloquent lines purged, vivid prose mercilessly rejected. After all this painful pruning - 700 words have been expunged. To his chagrin an additional 1,000 words must still be eliminated. HERE IS where the discipline comes in. One has to be ruthless. A column is an exercise in no-frills writing. No fat. No superfluous words. No self-indulgent phrases. Just like a good drawing, there can be no unnecessary lines. Every word, every phrase, must contribute. The key concepts are: bare-bones, lean, spare, niggardly. Every word has to serve a purpose, every line a soldier that must advance the cause. There can be no laggards that do not contribute to the forward movement of the piece. ("Niggardly" adds nothing here, and should be expunged. Ditto for "spare." But they do add color. Besides, my self-discipline does have its limits.) One hardens his heart, puts aside the quality of mercy and takes a deep breath. Creative sentences are relentlessly deleted, expelled and cast into the wilderness of words, to lie there untended and unmourned until truly imaginative (non-columnist) writers and poets come along, pick them up and give them new life. (Confession: that last paragraph, though it contains a vivid image, is expendable. Accordingly, I was about to delete it, since it consumes 66 words. But a heavenly muse stayed my hand, declaring: "Do not strike that. Let it live. It is far too good to be tossed overboard." I do not challenge heavenly messages, so those plangent words remain. We pray for the editor's indulgence, and hope that he will not notice that this explanatory paragraph now totals 100 words.) The exercise in self-flagellation having ended, the word count begins. I hold my breath. It is now down to 1,200 subtle and precise words. Still, this is 200 more than the editor likes. But if, along with my manuscript, I enclose some dark chocolates and a quality cigar, there is a fair chance that he might let me through the door even though I have exceeded the baggage allowance. IMAGINE IF we were able to transfer this kind of discipline into our mundane verbal activities. We prattle on and chatter, all the while unaware that speech is the gift from heaven that distinguishes us from the beasts. When God breathes the breath of life into Adam (Genesis 2:7) the classic Targum Onkelos translates "breath of life" as ruah memallela, "the breath of speech." Speech thus equals life. As such it must be cherished, and used sparingly and wisely. To overuse something is to devalue it. Obviously, talking is not writing, and speech by its very nature is intrinsically more expansive. It is precisely because the spoken word can continue endlessly and mindlessly, and precisely because it contains no braking mechanism, that it is surrounded by so many biblical restrictions: "Do not speak His Name in vain (Exodus 20:7). "Do not bear false witness," which prohibits gossip (Exodus 20:13). "Keep distant from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7). "Do not desecrate your word" (Numbers 30:3). "Multitude of words is the voice of a fool" (Kohelet 5:2). "Childish prattle removes man from the world" (Avot 3:14). Our verbal exuberance knows no bounds; the sound of our voice transfixes us. But imagine if we carried a portable editor which buzzed every 10,000 words, reminding us to ask ourselves if this idle banter is necessary, if that chatter is worthwhile. (Is not all banter idle?) Our pocket editor might reject certain chatter because of its length, or because it has no substance, or because it makes no sense - or all of the above. WHY ARE cell phones so ubiquitous? Obviously, because everyone, everywhere, must hear from us constantly - and we from them. Even when we drive, one hand is on the wheel, the other on the phone. Were we to utilize verbal editors, how much stillness would descend upon the earth! We worry about environmental pollution endangering our bodies. What about verbal pollution that endangers both body and soul? Say the Sages in Avot 1:17: "All my life was I raised among the wise, and found nothing better for the body than silence." Quiet, tranquility, contemplation, silence, serenity: the words themselves are redolent of an unworldly peace. (Are "silence" and "quiet" really needed in that sentence?) When God breathed the power of speech into Adam, did He intend for His gift to be transmogrified into prolix prattle? How did we become so garrulous? Op-ed columns may not always convey matters of great moment. But the preparation of such columns does suggest a self-restraint that transcends the margins of the written page. The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, was a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, for 40 years, and is the former editor of Tradition magazine.