I stared out my writing-room window, watching our yard transformed into a meteor crater. Enormous piles of dirt lined the edge of a twenty-four-foot wide, two-foot deep circular hole. The Bobcat had tracked a swath of sand across the yard to the fence. It was a beautiful mess.

Two months ago my spouse and I had a fifty-four-inch high above-ground pool installed two feet into the ground. I had never heard of such a thing. I viewed above-ground pools as gargantuan, their towering walls overpowering domestic landscapes. But a pool buried halfway in the earth becomes a piece of the whole; rather than taking over a back yard, it can blend and even beautify. As the process unfolded in our own yard, I was struck by how much writing is like constructing a pool.

I needed to believe this backyard mess would become a Pinterest photo of a serene pool edged with leafy green plants and crushed stone, with beautiful wooden steps leading up and into the glorious blue. As a writer, I need to believe my pencil scratchings will become fifteen-hundred organized, cogent words I feel good about, good enough to send to my editor.

Both of these messes are temporary.

First, we imagine what does not yet exist. The blank page is the backyard, an empty rectangle of possibility. After negotiating with the pool manufacturer/ installer/ ourselves about what we envision achieving, the excavator shows up.

Time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Digging begins on both fronts.

For the first hour, serious churning of earth, external and internal.

The sand, grass clumps, rocks, roots, emotions, throwaway words, half-formed sentences, fragments, and upended paragraphs are all temporary.

The pool, with its crushed-stone border, lemongrass and geranium plantings, pavers, and tiki torches, is only a few weeks away. The paragraphs that pop, sentences that snap like a new rubber band, essay or story spanked into shape so sweet that I feel a flutter of satisfaction—that too, is only a few weeks away (or, let’s be honest, sometimes months or years).

Writing, like swimming, is in large part about pleasure. We want to transport ourselves and our readers, whether we float in eighty-degree water on a blistering hot day or dive into an evocative memoir or fast-paced thriller. To help readers get there, we have to build a swimming pool—of words and sentences—and invite them to take the plunge.

A friend came over on the first morning to watch the excavation outside.

“I can’t tear myself away,” I confessed. “I’m not getting anything done because I can’t stop watching.”

We watched, enthralled, and talked for an hour. We discussed how the end product might look. We marveled over the excavator’s precision, how much earth was displaced, what to do with all the leftover sand.

The following day, when the installers arrived to turn the crater into a pool, more friends dropped by. Again, we stood outside and discussed the project.

When I returned to my writing desk, I thought about how writing is almost exclusively a solo endeavor. I talk about writing with my writer friends—and the non-writer friends who inquire about my work. In my writers’ group we review each other’s drafts, offer suggestions for improvement, and discuss how we write. But the process of excavation, installation, and landscaping of any work of writing—prose or poetry—is a solitary act.

One friend remarked that it would be great fun to dig big holes and move dirt with a small tractor. I agree. As writers, we sometimes forget that this is all fun—the excavation of words in the first draft, the installation of additional drafts, the landscaping of editing.

On that second day, the installers unpacked a twenty-one-foot pool out of six boxes and put it together, an enormous puzzle. On the afternoons of my excavation days, I take the morning’s five or six pages of scribbling and cut them into pieces then move them around, looking for connections, finding the best fit.

In the yard, the installers pushed leftover piles of earth with shovels, backfilling around the pool, walking in circles to compress the sand against the walls. At my desk, I’ll backfill the first draft of my piece, adding details, fleshing out underdeveloped ideas. I work to get some sections to stand on their own, to support paragraphs, ideas, concepts. I may move or even remove some parts. For example, in my first draft of this essay I wrote three paragraphs about the challenges of balancing the pool chemicals. The paragraphs couldn’t stand on their own, even with extra support, so I cut them. I’ll go over and over my piece, grooming the sentences as though with a rake. I’ll read my draft multiple times, deleting a word here and there, changing, tightening—my form of earth tamping.

Most periodicals have a word count for prose, ranging from a strict eight hundred to a generous eight thousand. The word count for this piece was fifteen hundred. My first draft clocked in at 770, the third draft at 1,486, the final draft I sent to my editor: 1,452. Every word must matter. I rely on snappy verbs and concrete, visual nouns to do heavy lifting. For example, I originally wrote: “Backfill is,” then I lined it out and wrote “consists.” The word “consists” packed a stronger punch.

I identify and delete rogue adverbs. Like weeds under a pool liner, adverbs weaken a sentence’s structure and undermine the paragraph. Each adverb undergoes a rigorous screening: help or hurt? In my first draft I had written: “exclusively a solo endeavor.” I weighed “exclusively” for its overall contribution to the sentence and to the paragraph, and decided it worked.

On the other hand, in my first draft I wrote: “strictly a solitary act,” then I crossed out “strictly.” Adverbs are sneaky. They creep into our writing, right past our awareness. As writers, we must let everything in on the first pass. During revision and editing, we can climb down into the hole at the sentence level and shovel out the adverbs.

Following the advice of master writing teacher Roy Peter Clark, I’ll also “Clark” my sentences, ending each one on a strong note, striking out prepositions, pronouns, and superfluous words. For example, in my opening paragraph I end the sentences on these four words: “crater,” “hole,” “fence,” “mess.” Those concrete nouns help establish and reinforce the essay’s main metaphor.

Some sentences are like leftover sand. Where to put them? Some have to be hauled off-site and dumped. Sometimes a sentence I love isn’t effective where I originally placed it. Like many other writers, I subscribe to that old adage, “Kill your darlings.” I might deploy one of those darlings to smooth a transition between paragraphs or between different sentences. Maybe a friend wants to borrow a line for one of their poems or stories. In my writer’s group, we “lend” phrases and sentences to each other, rather than cutting and leaving them for dead.

Our five-foot-high pile of leftover sand has dwindled. One neighbor took two wheelbarrows full, another several buckets. I shoveled some under a hibiscus plant, then filled a hole dug by the dog. If there is a use for these leftover words, I’ll put them to it; otherwise, out they go.

Before we think of our pool as finished, my spouse and I have to attend to one last but very important item: the inclusion of friends and family. Before I regard my writing as finished, I have to attend to considerations of audience.

Is the water temperature in our pool comfortable, refreshing, at times exhilarating? Similarly, is my writing “the right temperature”? Temperature of writing is about tone. Too cold and I won’t engage my readers. As the writers/narrators, are we cool? Distant? Disengaged? If so, the readers will feel the unpleasantness of that the moment they jump into our work. Or is the temperature too warm? If the writing style is florid, overrun with adverbs, clichés, or other overused figures of speech, the readers will get out.

There is discussion in the writing community about writing for oneself versus writing for commercial purposes. Why debate? It’s possible to achieve both aims, by focusing on our internal excavators during the drafting process, then by examining later drafts with editorial or “landscaping” eyes. As much as we install a swimming pool for our pleasure or write for personal satisfaction, ultimately we want to share, want readers to join us, to bask with us in the sparkling pool of our imaginations.


Nicole Caron’s nonfiction has appeared in numerous trade publications and regional magazines. She is a creative nonfiction editor for The Odet and is currently at work on her debut novel, as well as a series of essays about writers and writing. Her poetry collection, This Is Life: 100 Tanka for Everyday Living, is scheduled for publication by Chapter Two Press in late 2017. She teaches writing at Ringling College of Art + Design, where she coordinates the First-Year Writing and ESL Program. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @NCaron27.