Crockett Johnson & Ruth Krauss: biography outtakes, Part 5

For those readers (2 readers? 3? any takers?) who find these posts marginally more fascinating than watching paint dry, here’s a page from the just-edited Chapter 22 of my The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi, 2012).  For the record, the barely legible handwritten editorial notations are all mine.

page 297 from the manuscript of The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, as edited 11 Dec. 2010

On the page above (click to enlarge), I cut out a fair bit about Dave Hilberman (1911-2007), an animation pioneer whom I was fortunate to interview back in 2003.  His is a fascinating story, but the book isn’t about him.  I’ve tried to retain enough to convey some sense of the people Crockett Johnson (“Dave” to his friends) was working with, and why these people are important.  The context for this paragraph is that, after A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960), Johnson publishes no children’s books until 1963: one reason for this gap is the many other other projects he was working on.  The next paragraph (of which you see a little at the bottom of the page) picks up the theme of Johnson’s interest in and study of mathematics: in the Holt Barnaby books, Atlas’ formulae are real, and Johnson devoted the last decade of his life to mathematical paintings, even inventing a couple of original mathematical formulae.

(I also cut some bits pertaining to Ruth Krauss in this chapter, but very little and largely contextual.)

In all, I’ve knocked out 367 words from the chapter, reducing the manuscript to the still too-long word count of 134, 744.  It’s thus 7,422 words shorter since the last edit, but still 19,744 words longer than the contract specifies.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to get it within, say, 15,000 words over the limit.  During the next week (which also includes paper-grading, exam-grading, recommendation-letter-writing, grade-calculating, essay-refereeing), I want to get through Chapter 30 – which is currently the book’s final chapter.

I say “currently” because the next phase is restructuring the first eight chapters, which (I suspect) will involve cuts beyond what I’ve already made in this round of editing.  Right now, these chapters alternate between Krauss’s life and Johnson’s: 1 is hers, 2 is his, 3 is hers, and so on.  When Johnson and Krauss meet, they occupy the same chapter, and continue to do so until his death.  Though the chapters are short (all under 20 pages), Walter (my editor) thinks that this method results in losing “sight of one the two protagonists for so long that it’s difficult to stay invested in either of them.”  Thus, he suggests that even before they meet I include both in the same chapter – doing so will help make clear the connections between them earlier on.  I suspect he’s right, and (in any case) the only way I’ll know is to follow his suggestion, and see if it works.  For the record, I think that it will work.   Anyway, that’s the next task….



  1. Jay Hawk


    You don’t have an editor in your contract?! Let him or help (help you) whack out the 15,000 words.

    But why is there even a word limit today? You write one length for the Gutenberg set and another for the Berners-Lee set. Why haven’t publishers figured this out yet?!

  2. Reply

    Yes! I’m one of the 2 (or 3) nerdy readers who find this kind of post fascinating. Also, I strongly empathise, since I generally spend as much time cutting words from essays as I do writing essays. But the satisfaction once you reach the right number is priceless.

  3. Reply

    Clementine B: Thanks! I’m trying to sustain the illusion that my blog posts are useful. And, indeed, the satisfaction of a well-edited piece is what it’s all about.

    Jay Hawk: I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of my book contracts name the editor I’ll be working with. Walter (my editor on this) has helped a great deal. He’s provided some general guidelines for what to cut, and did a line-edit of the first 100 pages. I’d love a line-edit of the rest, but that’s more than he’s able to supply. I look at it this way: different publishers offer different levels of editorial involvement. In my experience, Random House provided the most (they even fact-checked my entire manuscript!) and Continuum provided the least. NYU Press and UP Mississippi are somewhere in between those two. (The bio is my second book with UP Mississippi.)

    My sense of the reason for this discrepancy is that a major commercial house has greater resources and requires editors to read fewer manuscripts; an academic (and thus non-profit) press has fewer resources and asks editors to do more (for considerably less money, I would guess).

    The reason for the word limit is that books cost money to produce, and the market will only bear a certain price for the book. When the manuscript goes over a certain number of pages, the cost rises. This book will already be expensive to produce: it has 90 images, 13 of which are in color (there will be a color insert).

    If there any readers in publishing who’d like to correct or amend my admittedly off-the-cuff analysis, please feel free to do so. Thanks.

  4. Mark Morey


    Please be assured that your efforts are appreciated, Professor Nel. Some cultural phenomena are automatically recorded and those recordings refined over time; others, like “Barnaby” and other labors of his creator and Ms.Krauss, are, in Hamlet’s words, “caviare to the many.” Without the efforts of people like you, they could easily vanish without a trace.

  5. Reply

    Thanks for your comments (here, & on the Barnaby post)! I’m now into the restructuring of the first eight chapters. It’s a bit sticky (& thus slow-going) at times, but I think the end result will be a better book. And, since this project represents ten years of my life, I’d like to make this as strong a manuscript as I can! FYI: Another Barnaby post coming later this week.

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