Literary Learnings

Sifting for Word Jewels

By Janet Robertson

Redaction: the censoring or obscuring of part of a text for legal or security purposes.

The evening news and Congressional hearings have familiarized us with the standard definition of redaction. But I often employ redaction in my never-ending search for juicy words. Consider Yeats’ poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” You can find it here:

Print out the poem, and using a black Sharpie, redact every word that does not immediately speak to you. Below is my example:

Yes, it’s hard to look at Yeats’ work with all those black marks but consider the gems that have been revealed. In the past six months I have written 30,000 words for my new novel. Yet, not a single word, unredacted above, is in my book. Yeats and redaction have provided me with new words; words Yeats has given meaning and cadence. Consider the phrase dropping slow. I might alter it to be dawdling slow or summer slow, but the idea of putting an adjective before slow is Yeats’ gift to me. Lapping brings to mind not only the sound of water rhythmically hitting the shore, but also the mental image of a thirsty dog greedily lapping up the water in its doggy bowl, spilling it out onto the kitchen floor. Since my novel is about a dragon—a crazed, schizophrenic dragon—I’ve decided to use this word to give the dragon a rabid-dog-like quality. Keeping in mind Yeats’ usage, I added the word slapping, to let the reader hear the scene.

With its forked serpent’s tongue, the dragon eagerly lapped up the bits of magic, slapping its wet tongue against the stones, desperate to consume even the smallest twinkling morsel that had fallen from Alyse.

Consider Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.”

I chose to redact all but a single word, lurk. What a great verb! But again, a word search of my new novel shows I haven’t used it. Why not? Certainly, many of my characters lurked.

First lines and first chapters of novels, because they must immediately capture and hold the reader’s attention, are excellent places to look for interesting words. Consider this sentence from the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

I would redact this sentence leaving only amount of neck and craning. The idea of giving my characters different amounts of neck never occurred to me. I cannot remember ever using the word craning.

Consider these two sentences from the first chapter of The Road by Cormac McCarthy:

Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

I would redact everything but dark beyond darkness, cold glaucoma and dimming. Not only are each of these incredible by themselves, but they build on one another. McCarthy repeats himself. He describes the world’s bleakness not once but three times. It is dark, it is cold and diseased, it is dimming. The reader knows that the man is losing his sight, not his physical sight, but his spiritual sight. He can’t see any hope. What McCarthy taught me here was to use many words, to be unafraid of repetition.  

The phrase cold glaucoma repeats the thought of darkness by adding the sense of touch, cold, as in a land which is dark, without the sun’s warmth and light. Both cold and glaucoma add the idea of approaching death—the ultimate darkness. The bodies of dead people are cold. Glaucoma is a disease of the old, of those who are weary and about to die. There is so much for me to learn here.

Redaction is a quick literary exercise that always blesses me twice. First in the word jewels I find, and second in the experience of reading again authors and poets who continue to touch my life. It’s time for a new definition of redaction.

Redaction: the obscuring of part of a literary work, leaving only those words and phrases which speak to the writer, for the purpose of discovering new words and new writing techniques.

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