Wednesday, January 19, 2005


In Which A Phrase Is Coined...

Yesterday, I was crabbing softly about wanting to make my mark on popular culture. I forgot to add that maybe I have added something to my own little culture.

A while back, I was discussing a story with another editor. It was short piece--just a page--and cuts had to be made. But there was one passage, up near the top of the story, that we both liked. We didn't want to get rid of it, but it wasn't clear where in the story it belonged.

"That's okay," I assured my editor. "I'll just do a Tetris edit and see where it lands."

He'd never heard the phrase before, but grasped its meaning instantly and asked me where I'd heard it. I've used the phrase for years. It seemed self-serving to say I made it up, but then again, maybe I did. A quick search doesn't reveal the phrase in usage anywhere, so I'm going to go ahead and take credit for it. You heard it hear first.

Like my editor, you have probably already grasped that Tetris editing involves moving a chunk of story--a quote, a tip, an anecdote, even just a well-turned phrase--further and further down the length of the piece, trying it out in various spots in the narrative, until you finally find a place it fits. Just like in the game. If you get to the bottom of the story and haven't really found a spot for it, it's probably one of those darlings you need to slaughter.

I also find Tetris editing to be useful when I start a writing project. I'll load all the stuff I know I want in the story--anecdotes, quotes, whatever--at the top of the file, all unconnected, just a bunch of blocks. Then I start writing the connective bits between these blocks--if I can. If I can't make a sensible connection between them, it's time to start moving blocks down the page.

I grant you, it doesn't work for all kinds of writing. But story editing--fiction or nonfiction--often requires you to be able to juggle whole chunks of stuff around. Lots of writers dump this stuff in another file, or at the end of a story, and move it around from there. Some writers have a Rain Man-like ability to move the story pieces around in their heads. I can't do that. I lose track of stuff. I need it in front of me. I need it following me through the story, like my kid trailing me down a movie theater aisle, asking me where he gets to sit.

One day, I overheard some editors in a completely different department from mine, discussing stories. And one of them said, "Well, we need that guy's quote in the story somewhere. Don't cut it. Tetris it down and see where it fits." And the others oohed and ahhed over the phrase, and asked if she'd coined it. And she gave credit editor.

Who owed me a nickel, because I copyrighted the phrase when he wasn't looking.

From Somewhere On the Masthead

I used to be so addicted to that game!! I knew what you meant the moment I read it! Very, very cool. I will give due credit when I use your phrase, and I WILL use it. (I think I'll spring it on my son the next time I am helping him with his English homework. How cool will Mom be then?)
Good one MM, and very smooth.

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