A Big Writing Mistake—Or, the Most Overused Word in My Manuscript

A few days after Thanksgiving, I received a note from my editor that the book was going to print very soon. Next week! That meant in early December, Eat This Poem was off to the press. I wrote back, exactly: “Eeek! (And also, pretty exciting!)”

Getting to this point was roughly a seven month process that included several rounds of revisions—from my editor, me, and a team of copyeditors trained to find inconsistencies like “Can we say yellow onion instead of brown onion?” or “Pepper is listed in the ingredients, but not in the directions.” There was also a line that said “bring out the earthy beer flavor,” which should have read “earthy beet flavor.” Thank heavens for them.

Way before this happened, though, I noticed a big writing mistake.

As I sipped my tea and read each chapter, words began rising up from the page. Familiar words. I decided to run a search in my Word doc, and discovered one particular word was used throughout the manuscript exactly 20 times!


Once I realized the oversight, I went back and found a new way to say whatever it was I was trying to say. I left a few nudges, of course. I do love the word, after all, but decided three or four mentions was far better than several dozen.

That’s what happens when you read and re-read—you notice things you never noticed before.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, this kind of writing mistake is a relatively easy one to fix. A quick use of the search feature let me know exactly how many times the word appeared, and from there, it was just a matter of working through all the mentions and deciding which to keep and which to change.

Want more lessons from my book-writing journey? Catch up on past posts!

"Immigrant Picnic" by Gregory Djanikian + Warm Potato Salad With Yogurt Vinaigrette

Potato Salad with Yogurt Vinaigrette and Lots of Herbs (via Eat This Poem) #ImmigrantFoodStories

For the past several months, I've had a ritual at work. After arriving to my desk and pulling my computer from its sleeve, I snatch a tin of tea from my drawer. Lately it's been a robust black tea, but since I've recently finished every last drop, I've brought a green tea called Ventura Highway, with notes of meyer lemon and fresh grass. I walk the 50 steps or so to the kitchen and pour hot water into my pot, and while the tea steeps, I read the New York Times.

I scan the morning headlines, then make my way to the food section (naturally) and the style section, and sometimes I switch to the global edition to see what's happening in far away places. It's a nice way to begin the day. But these past couple of weeks—well, ever since January—the moment before hitting return after typing in nytimes.com into my browser makes me feel a bit anxious. What happened while I was sleeping, I wonder? What today, will shake me to my core? 

If you know me, you might know I'm a fairly non-confrontational person. I don't like shouting matches, and I try to listen before I speak. I know there's always more to a story. And since that day in January, I've watched friends and strangers grapple with the news. How to cope. How to move forward and do all those normal things in life we need to do when chaos feels palpable. 

For doers and givers, it can be hard to know what to do. Our voices are a drop in the bucket. Our actions might be small. We might still not know what, exactly, is the best course of action, or how we even feel about everything. We might have family members who share different beliefs and political leanings. 

On Inauguration Day, we drove up the coast to Santa Barbara. The trip had been planned for months, long before the election, but as we passed cars on the highway, I looked into the faces of everyone, wondering whose side they were on. Were they horrified, relieved, content, apathetic? Did they vote? Are they hurting? Are they scared? Are they wondering what everyone is so upset about? I couldn't tell, only guess, and assume I might not be the only one coming to terms with the events that morning.

While we were up in wine country the next day, racing our toddler around the vineyards and sneaking in a few bites of cheese, I watched on social media as my fellow Americans marched in cities across the country. Andrew and I caught a bit of the news that night in the cozy living room of our rented cottage, eating leftover Italian food from the night before, stunned, really. It just didn't seem real yet. It still doesn't. 

Potato Salad with Yogurt Vinaigrette and Lots of Herbs (via Eat This Poem) #ImmigrantFoodStories

So, in an effort to come together around something we can all agree on (like our basic need to eat), and share stories of immigrants and those who have come before us, we food bloggers had an idea. It started with my friend Kimberley of The Year in Food, who launched an initiative called #ImmigrantFoodStories. Food bloggers around the country are using this hashtag to tell stories on their blogs and in their social media feeds, and we hope it fills you up this week (both literally and figuratively). 

In Eat This Poem fashion, I offer a poem. I ran across it years ago, actually, and sort of stored it away in the back of my mind. I guess now is the right time to share it.

Immigrant Picnic

by Gregory Djanikian

It's the Fourth of July, the flags
are painting the town,
the plastic forks and knives
are laid out like a parade.

And I'm grilling, I've got my apron,
I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish,
I've got a hat shaped   
like the state of Pennsylvania.

I ask my father what's his pleasure
and he says, "Hot dog, medium rare,"
and then, "Hamburger, sure,   
what's the big difference,"   
as if he's really asking.

I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,   
slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,
uncap the condiments. The paper napkins   
are fluttering away like lost messages.

"You're running around," my mother says,   
"like a chicken with its head loose."

"Ma," I say, "you mean cut off,
loose and cut off   being as far apart   
as, say, son and daughter."

She gives me a quizzical look as though   
I've been caught in some impropriety.
"I love you and your sister just the same," she says,
"Sure," my grandmother pipes in,
"you're both our children, so why worry?"

That's not the point I begin telling them,
and I'm comparing words to fish now,   
like the ones in the sea at Port Said,   
or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,
unrepentantly elusive, wild.   

"Sonia," my father says to my mother,
"what the hell is he talking about?"
"He's on a ball," my mother says.                                               

"That's roll!" I say, throwing up my hands,
"as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll...."

"And what about roll out the barrels?" my mother asks,
and my father claps his hands, "Why sure," he says,
"let's have some fun," and launches   
into a polka, twirling my mother   
around and around like the happiest top,   

and my uncle is shaking his head, saying
"You could grow nuts listening to us,"   

and I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai
burgeoning without end,   
pecans in the South, the jumbled
flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,
wordless, confusing,
crowding out everything else.

Source: Poetry (Poetry Foundation, 1999)

Potato Salad with Yogurt Vinaigrette and Lots of Herbs (via Eat This Poem) #ImmigrantFoodStories

In the early 20th century (quite early, in fact), my great-great grandfather sailed on a ship from Sicily and settled in upstate New York. Even though by the time my generation came along my family was fully assimilated and settled in California, my grandfather still spoke in Italian and we ate meatballs at every family gathering, and he told stories about the time he went to Sicily and met with family who still lived there (who, he said, caught fish and grew grapes), and they treated him like a king. 

I don't know if the vineyards are still there, but I like to think so. I went to Italy the year I graduated from college, and it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I didn't speak the language or know how to navigate the streets (we once got lost in Florence), but I just had a sense I belonged there. Part of me, anyway. 

So many Americans are from somewhere else. A member of our family, likely at great personal risk but also holding onto the promise of a better life, made the life-changing decision to board a ship and make a great journey. 

There is conflict in this poem. The speaker embraces his new home, corrects his family members when they misuse American phrases. It's comical and sweet, but then there is the last stanza. Perhaps a gust of wind blew by and had the slightest scent of pistachio. A memory this strong usually doesn't take much to shake us, and suddenly, through food, a small green nut "burgeoning without end" we are transported to another place that is also called home.

Potato Salad with Yogurt Vinaigrette and Lots of Herbs (via Eat This Poem) #ImmigrantFoodStories

Warm Potato Salad with Yogurt Vinaigrette and Lots of Herbs

American potato salads have a long history of being laden with mayonnaise-based dressings, so heavy you have to pick through the bowl to find bits of potato hiding underneath. I've lightened things up with a creamy yogurt vinaigrette whose tartness comes from apple cider vinegar and mustard (softened with just a touch of honey), and a trio of herbs.

2 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed and halved or quartered, depending on size
1 tablespoon salt

1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, grated
2 teaspoons grainy Dijon mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup plain yogurt (not Greek)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly cracked pepper
Squirt of honey (optional)

1 cup chopped mixed herbs (parsley, dill, and chives)

Place potatoes in a large stock pot and cover by at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and add the salt. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork; drain, then pour back into the pot. 

While the potatoes cook, make the vinaigrette. Add shallot and garlic to a bowl, along with mustard, apple cider vinegar, yogurt, olive oil, salt, and a few grinds of freshly cracked pepper. Whisk to combine, then taste it. If you prefer a tart dressing, it might be perfect for you. To mellow the flavor a bit, add a squirt of honey and whisk again, until it tastes just right.

Pour the vinaigrette over the potatoes and gently toss to combine. Finally, add the herbs and another pinch of salt and toss before serving.

NOTE: If you'd prefer to serve this cold, here's what I'd suggest. Add half of the dressing immediately so the potatoes soak it up, then chill. Just before serving, add the remaining half of the dressing, plus all the herbs. This will keep the herbs a vibrant green (otherwise, they'll darken a bit in the fridge.)

More Immigrant Food Stories

When You Must Kill Your Darlings

How to Cook a Book: When You Must Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings.

Remove what you are most in love with. Remove any words the story no longer needs. It can be the most heart-wrenching thing to do, which is why editing is best left to the daylight hours, after you’ve spent some significant time away from the page.

The phrase “kill your darlings” is most widely attributed to William Faulkner (although there’s evidence to the contrary). Regardless, it’s sage writing advice. While working on the manuscript for Eat This Poem, I killed many, many darlings. It’s all part of the process, but I never thought I’d cut the very first thing I ever wrote.

Winter 2013.

Having already eaten lunch at my desk, I tucked my laptop under my arm and drove a few miles down the road to Starbucks. Surrounded by teenagers and business meetings, I took out my photocopied page of “The Orange,” a poem by Campbell McGrath, and scribbled notes in the margins.

Then I wrote one sentence that was followed by more sentences, that became an entire manuscript.

“This poem is not about an orange, not really. It’s about every moment you’ve ever been blindsided by happiness.”

I didn’t know where the poem would fit just then. I didn’t know it would open the second chapter, or which stories I would tell for the recipe pairings. I only knew what the poem made me feel in that moment.

This was in 2013, early enough to know the road ahead would be long. It was the first poem of 40 others I would include in my book proposal, that was eventually cut down to 25 poems. There would be many more lunch breaks spent underlining words, taking notes, and drafting, but this is one of the first moments I can remember of really knowing this would happen. A book would be born. I just felt it. And it wasn’t a light caffeine rush from my tea, either. I simply knew it to be true.

The story behind the story.

As is the custom, we begin with a first draft that must be refined. The original commentary I had for this poem was much longer, and told the story of a Habitat for Humanity trip I took to Poland. It was the summer after studying abroad in London, and I was itching to travel. I convinced a friend to join me, and we found ourselves on a flight filled with Polish grandmothers making their way back to the mother country from Chicago. The plane erupted with applause when we landed.

Every morning we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then filed into a bus that drove us to the construction site across town, in a quiet suburban village. One morning, I looked across the square, and at the edge of the park was a red, London bus. It had no business being there, as far as I could tell. What was a double decker bus from the streets of London doing in downtown Wrocław. I never did find out.

But what was even more curious was the number: 38. It was the same bus I took to school every day when I was living in Clerkenwell and studying at King’s College. The very same bus number! No one else seemed to notice the bus, and if they did, I’m certain it meant nothing to them.

I never forgot this. It was some sort of strange sign, something I alone was meant to witness.

  An illustration from inside the pages of  Eat This Poem , drawn by  Cat Grishaver.

An illustration from inside the pages of Eat This Poem, drawn by Cat Grishaver.


So when I read “The Orange,” where the speaker discovers an object where it is not meant to be—in this case, a heavy piece of citrus fallen far from its tree—I immediately thought of my London bus in Poland.

I wrote the story out and kept it there for a very long time. Years later, I realized it needed to be removed. The story simply didn’t fit, and wasn’t intimately tied into the recipes.

But it’s a special story, so I’m telling you. It’s a story behind a story. A layer. A fragment. Writing is full of these. When I’m editing, there’s a string, followed by a pause. I’ll come back here, I reason. I hope when I return, I’ll have figured out a way to keep what my gut knows should go.

Kill your darlings.

Writing is like this. A push and pull. An instinctual process, a grief in letting go of the words we may have fought hard to put down in the first place. A carving out.

Keep what you remove. Don’t discard it. You may find a new home for the words, the story, as I have here.

Tips for when you must kill your darlings

3 tips for editing your writing, when you're ready

1  Let it rest

When you pull a beautiful, seared steak off the grill, the first thing you should do is let it rest. Covered loosely with foil, juices redistribute and ensure they don’t run all over your cutting board. You also slice the steak against the grain. It’s like editing. First, give your words some time. Close your computer, put the pages in a drawer. When you’re ready to begin, you’ll be in a new state of mind, brimming with clarity. Have your red pen ready, and go against the grain.

2 You are not your words

Yes, you wrote them. Yes, the words are part of you. But once they’re on the page, detach yourself. Look for flaws. Look for repeated words… Look closely, as you would with someone else’s work. Try as best you can to leave emotion behind and focus on what you’re really looking at, seeing if it flows, where you have gaps, and what needs to be reworked.

Kill your darlings, if you must.

3 Read aloud

After you’ve done a round or two of editing, read your work aloud. You’ll catch things you didn’t notice before, and see how natural the words sound when strung together with the inflections in your voice.

Writing and editing are two distinct aspects of the creative process, and you’ll do well to separate them. Write first, edit later.

What are some of your favorite editing tips?