Editing, Tics, and Diffuseness

I have finally finished the first version of my essay on teaching Mrs. Dalloway. It was due on November 1, so sending it off this afternoon seems almost respectable. I hate when I miss deadlines; it makes me feel bad about myself and I worry that my mother will be disappointed in me. But, there it is.

I wrote the essay in little pieces, filling in the gaps whenever I could over the course of the fall. Around November 1, when it was due, I felt that the piece was nearly finished and I wrote to the editor to tell her that it was coming along all right but might be a bit late. Then I returned to the guidelines: I had remembered a 5,000-word limit; I had written about 5,400 words; the essay has a strict maximum of 2,250 words. I breathed a sigh of relief—some of the things I had not been able to explain thoroughly were going to be cut anyway. Still, that’s a lot of cutting.

Today’s project was to move from 2,913 to 2,250 and it’s taught me a lot about my own diffuseness, my persistent verbal tics. I excised the irritating “indeed” long ago but not, it seems “of course.” I must have crossed out three or four of those over my latte this morning. I still cannot rid myself of all kinds of formations involving the word “own” (as in “of one’s own” or “Woolf’s own”) an embarrassing echo of the title of my favorite text, clearly, and one I have to consciously excise from everything I write, from my book on down to memos and assignments. I have also x-ed out tons of three- and four-word verb phrases (“help my students learn to” becomes “students learn,” “I ask them to list” becomes “we list”).

The digressions and amplifications all have to go, too, of course. Lists of things that I don’t do, asides that offer additional interesting information, and all the little baroque decorations are gone. The finished text (2,244 words including the bibliography) feels clean, white, nearly adjective-free.

Looking at one’s own prose this closely is a little jarring and it leaves me with two questions: 1) I wanted to write about an activity I do to, in the final version “counter the impression that nothing happens in Mrs. Dalloway. I chose “counter” to avoid the militaristic “combat” and because I didn’t know if one diffuses or defuses an impression. Which is it? Dictionaries and idiom archives didn’t help and Googling both phrases yielded results. 2) What are the tics that you have to revise out of your prose?