It Takes a Plan to Leave Stuff Out

In Paragraph City, one of my favorite writing classrooms is the Wallace Stevens room.  Chiseled into the granite above the door is “What you leave out is as important as what you put in.”  It’s not that those words belong to old WS (as far as I remember, I came up with them on my own), but that lovely reminder of the force of what isn’t is pure Stevens.

In fact, excuse me for a moment while I go read “The Snowman” again. You can too, here ( and you can read where Jay Kerser on NPR called this poem the best short poem in English, “bar none” here (

So in this place where we talk about writing, I walk around the room saying “What you leave out is important. Know what to leave out. With any topic, figure out the essential things to include and the essential things to exclude, too. You’ve got to know the difference and leave out the right stuff.” Pretty soon students know I’m talking about more than just getting error out of the writing; there are ideas, facts, conclusions, observation, good stuff all on its own but stuff that just isn’t right for the one particular essay coming out of them.

A little more of this and students start thinking about what the trick is to knowing the things to leave out. I talk about how glad I am to not be reading the stuff that was left out of good essays. Around the room, little floating light bulbs appear above heads. If they have a plan, they can get a bunch of material and use what suits the plan, leaving out anything ill-fitting.  That clever, precise tangential description, that digressionary metaphor, those pretty little irrelevant details: if the thesis god doesn’t know them, they get packed away for some other day, some other god.

Then one of the light bulbs becomes green and one turns purple with green rings and another goes yellow with blue rings and one is just strange, and I know they think about how the really good life they want to live will be good because some common, pale, plain things that clog up many lives will never be theirs. The moment smells a little of Zen, and from across the room where he sits on the old oak book case, the bust of Wallace Stevens smiles, looking for all the world like he just sold one terrific policy.


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