Writers, How Much Should You Leave Unsaid?

“I hear it. I see it. I feel it.” That’s what Jacqueline Lehr wrote in a comment on my previous post (“Enough“). What more could a writer hope for?

I know, how about a request to see an early draft? Steph Sinclair asked for just that. Here’s how that conversation went.


Below is the promised early draft. By the time I shared this draft with Ray (the aforementioned husband of merciless insight, sayer of things like “What happens if you delete this paragraph?” and “You’re trying too hard to make a point” and “It’s only two bucks”), I had already put in many hours. I had already cut a lot. I felt close to finished.

Ha! Eventually, I would chop off the first four paragraphs, massage the middle, and refashion the ending—oh, how I wanted to say things at the end! I added, changed, added, deleted, changed, deleted until nothing remained but what had happened: “the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.”

“Enough” (Early Draft)

The bus is due in ten minutes. Should I stay here at the stop and wait for it? I’d like to hit the office-supply store down the block. Do I have enough time?

I jog to the store. I’ve had correction tape on my list for a while, the kind that comes in a round palm-sized dispenser that lays a ribbon of white stuff, like a skinny Band-Aid, over typos, ink smudges, and whatnot. This might seem like a silly thing for me to keep on hand since I make most of my fixes on the computer these days, but I find uses for the stuff. Other people do too, apparently; the store has six-packs on sale for two dollars, down from seven something. A steal.

I hand the cashier two bills, feeling that I’m getting away with something. I’ve just saved three times what I paid. I tuck the package into my purse and return to the bus stop with two minutes to spare.

I flash the driver the pass on my phone and take a seat near the back doors. Others get on.

“Sir, I need to see your transfer.”

A young man, maybe in his early twenties, is walking toward the back. “I just, it’s…”

I wait for him to complete his thought or turn around. He keeps walking. Everything he wears and everything he carries, as far as I can tell, is black. His clothes—jeans, shirt, jacket with lots of pockets—all hang loosely, hiding his body. He drops into a seat across the aisle, one row behind me.

“Sir,” the driver says.

The turn signal is going tink-tink. The bus pulls into the flow of traffic. At the next stop, the driver tries again: “Your transfer, sir?”

“It’s down… It must’ve…” The man speaks too quietly for the driver to hear. He moves a slow hand around in his satchel. After a few seconds, he abandons the effort if you can call it that. One black-booted foot is sticking out into the aisle. Maybe he’s drunk or high. I don’t smell anything. Maybe he’s angry, disoriented, embarrassed, any number of things I can’t guess at.

“Need a couple of bucks for the ticket?” I ask. I’m old enough to be his mother.

He raises his face and looks at me. “Yes.” It’s a deep voice, flat but not unpleasant.

The last time I paid attention to the price of a ticket, it was just under two dollars. I hope that two dollars is enough. I pull two folded ones from my wallet, aware that I’ve just done this very thing in another setting. I put the bills in his hand. I feel light, larger than myself.

He stands and takes a step toward the front. The bus slows, pulls over, stops. Just like that, out the doors he slips. As he walks off, I watch his back move up and down, up and down. What is he saying to himself? How long until he forgets this white-haired woman who has just looked into his eyes? Where will he go next? Who waits for him there? What will my two dollars buy him and when?

The bus continues on its way. I can no longer see the man, but I keep wondering. Will he ever have enough money? Will he ever believe that he has enough money—enough anything? How many of us ever do?

P.S. At least one person prefers this early version to the tighter one. (See this Facebook conversation.) What say you, readers? When you write, how do you decide what to cut, what to keep, what to add?

P.P.S. Okay, since you asked … surely someone asked … here’s a sampling of the endings I played with as I progressed toward the final, only-what-happened version (the final bullet):

  • The bus slows, pulls over, stops. Just like that, out the doors he slips. He did not just do that, I think. Then: Of course he did. As he walks off, I watch his back. If this were happening in a novel or TV show, someone—maybe a gang—would run after him. Voices would be raised. Fists. Worse. As the bus continues on its way, the only things chasing this man, besides whatever demons follow him everywhere, are the questions I will never be able to ask him.
  • The bus slows, pulls over, stops. Just like that, out the back doors he slips. He walks off, along with everything that follows him.
  • The bus slows, pulls over, stops. And out the back doors he slips.

12 thoughts on “Writers, How Much Should You Leave Unsaid?

  1. You have me laughing (and laughing and …) ..!…

    …. “the aforementioned husband of merciless insight”

    I love it!

    and thank you for posting your earlier draft…

  2. Steph, Glad to bring you a chuckle. And glad that you liked this post. Thanks again for the request. I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to ask for an earlier draft of something I’ve poured thought into. For years I schlepped around a boxful of typewritten versions of an article that was eventually published in Shakespeare Quarterly, never finding an English teacher to take me up on the offer to share the iterations with a class as an example of how much rewriting goes into writing. So much for that show-and-tell fantasy.

    Since you liked the spare version of this write-up (the original post), I would love to hear your thoughts as to whether this early draft or any of the early endings include things that you might not have cut, as my friend Frank Mazur has suggested in this thoughtful Facebook conversation. Or would you stick with the spareness?

  3. I enjoyed both stories. They are different stories. What I made up in my head when I read the original concise story is not the same as your original story.
    I guess that the answer to how concise to make it depends on how much you want to leave the reader of your story compared to how much freedom you want to give the reader to create a story using the string of words that you reveal.

  4. Hi Marcia;

    I am so sorry I didn’t see this and have not replied until now. It was not my intent.

    Both drafts are great reads but I would stick with the spareness of the first.

    The longer draft:

    Great imagery showing the narrator going through her normal day-to-day life. We “hear” the regular noise of life, of living.

    The two paragraphs about shopping could be left out but do a good –a tight- job of illustrating life occupied with routine. I love the distracted yet focused discussion about correction tape. This and the “turn signal is going tink-tink” take us viscerally into the story.

    The subsequent encounter is at first a distraction, then interest, then engagement and finally contemplative speculation.

    The detailed description of the young man’s appearance and possible motivation add to the story. Questions the reader might think of are asked.

    I do like this version. If I hadn’t seen the other I’d be satisfied. This is tight, well written and flows well.

    Compared to the other it has distractions that take away from the story of the encounter with the young man. These make it richer, but lessen the impact.

    Re: the earlier endings:
    1) This ending inserts words that divert our attention. I prefer the original as it focuses on just the young man and narrator.
    2) This one is too quick and nonchalant an ending.
    3) This is just too quick an ending for me.

    All three work but we need the ending to focus on the character and see just a bit more of him before he disappears forever… (queue the first 14 seconds from Clint Eastwood’s “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdLQf1Ef9Ns )

    It is in character but we want to see something more so We’ve built up the character so want to see

    The shorter draft:
    Great imagery. I’m in the store with you and then on the bus. I’m preoccupied with my day-to-day life. At first the young man is a distraction. Then I’m interested, he becomes my focus. As he steps off the bus I’m left thinking… what’s the young man’s story. Where is he going, where will he get his next meal, how is he living day-to-day? Or is he just someone scamming the world? (That would be a cynical view but the thought might be there!).

    “Me” in this version could be anyone, any age, sex or race. Most readers could cast themselves as the narrator.

    There are no unnecessary words that take away from the story’s impact.

    This is powerful.. it’s the “wow” I wrote in my initial response.

    I like both versions. I prefer the shorter because it has so much impact. I thought about the encounter and unasked questions a few days later. That’s impact!

    Thanks for allowing me to provide my feedback on your writing.

  5. Steph, Thanks for this thoughtful assessment. Love your reference to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” That opening sure does get character across.

    I find all your insights helpful in their nuance. I especially appreciate your noting that you “thought about the encounter and unasked questions a few days later.” Mission accomplished.

  6. The best writing can often be about not just what’s on the page, but what the writer has decided to leave unsaid. Leaving the reader space to breathe and think, to join the dots themselves and come to their own conclusions. Concise can be powerful, just look at the Haiku greats for inspiration.

  7. Dear Marcia:
    I think you’re on to something.

    I’d love to see a book of “first drafts,” with links to the final published pieces. I’d like to see it organized into different categories, i.e., blog posts, chapter openings and endings from books, newsletter articles, email, etc.

    This resonated with me because I still remember the shock and pleasure I encountered when reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. After reading the first page of Chapter One, when you turn the page, he shows the original draft of the page.

    Perhaps you could use a different colored text to indicate deleted text? That would eliminate the need to go back and forth from original to edited.

    Great post.

  8. Thanks for your note, Roger. I agree with you about Zinsser’s before and after. I felt a similar shock and pleasure when I came across an article a few years ago showing a Ray Carver story as edited (for better or worse depending on your point of view) by Gordon Lish. Thanks for your suggestions—thoughtful, as always.


  9. Touzoku, Yes, nothing like a good Haiku for evoking what’s left between the lines, leaving the reader the satisfaction of figuring it out, as you say. I feel the same way about poems and short stories. Thanks for taking time to leave a comment.


  10. You have me laughing (and laughing and …) ..!…

    …. “the aforementioned husband of merciless insight”

    I love it!

    and thank you for posting your earlier draft…

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