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Oh, Carol! I know the feeling well.

As I read the passage, before I got to your question, I stumbled over "like a thief." The rest was gorgeous and perfect. But he's not a thief. He might be like a repentant thief, or a reluctant thief. But not a thief. So, yes, I do encourage you to let it go.


Carol, I enjoyed this! I was just thinking the other day how often I see copy editors online complaining about other people's writing. So this is a refreshing change of pace.

I really like the line breaks you made in your excerpt. I will say that the phrase "like a thief" also made me pause and wonder, "Was he really like a thief?"

George Ernsberger

Lovely stuff, and thanks. You probably have to give it up, but it's a real shame. I got it, but slightly differently--less completely, maybe should be said--that it was guilty knowledge on the narrator's part just because it was somebody's secret, not available to be his own after all. And that, only after having been stopped by the word at first in just the way the literal-minded ce here was. It was absolutely worth the extra thought, but maybe not in a passage as flowing as this one wants to be. Different word, maybe? Like . . . a sneak? No, but worth some digging at if you haven't already.


I too paused at "like a thief," but it was out of delight. Maybe it's because I tinker in poetry, but I thought it was a lovely and unusual metaphor — and quite apt in the passage.

The copy editor in me understands that you'll have to quietly let it go, but it's too bad.

Thanks for sharing the excerpt — quite a brave thing to do.

Dave McLane

I think it was deep-sixed because it doesn't make sense. In general thieves don't put things back, they take them.

Assuming the small boy wasn't already a thief, he could have put it back for some good reason. Assuming that he wasn't already a thief, he could have put it back to not become one. These would make sense to me, but how to say that in a few words defeats me.

George Ernsberger

Oh!--I meant to say, about this passage but about this problem almost whenever it comes up: not all that much of a shame, because plenty that's delightful is left. That's the real, the grown-up writer lesson.


I didn't stumble a bit over it. But for those who do, what about...

I put it back,
guilty, like a thief,
all the way back where it was,


Hmmmm...am I the only one it worked for? I read it as meaning "feeling" like a thief. And it immediately brought up similiar experiences I had as a child--discovering something secret and somehow feeling responsible for it. Perhaps adding the word "feeling"?


I understood it the way that the boy felt like a thief—felt as guilty as if he had stolen the money—because he had opened a box that, in retrospect, he realized he shouldn’t have peeked into. I’m not sure whether other people would feel that way in such a situation, but I can empathize with the boy.


You're writing for children, right? Run it past a few and get their reactions. If they stumble (as I, as a teacher, suspect their literal young minds might), chuck it. If they intuitively grasp the intent of the poetry, then keep it and to heck with what smart, literate, adult readers think. : )

Carol Dunlap

I totally get it and am sorry you may have to let it go. ("For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night." -- the Bible). I am thinking out loud here on this matter because it hits home personally. As I am sure you know, letting go, eventually, usually, gives way to the satisfaction of getting a project out of your head and into the hands of readers. Thanks for reminding us of this.


Congrats on your book! For me the "thief" question is more of a "show don't tell" issue. We can guess how the boy feels based on his actions; I don't think it is necessary for the narrator to tell us he feels guilty (like a thief).


What if you changed it to "like the thief," meaning he feels like the thief who hid the money in the first place?


I see your point and theirs. It seems "Like an eavesdropper" is more what you want - he over-saw rather than overheard - but the word thief is compelling while eavesdropper would be cumbersome. Will you drop it or replace it?


This is always hard to say, but 'Kill your darlings' - if you feel that attached to a section of the text, it's there because you love it, not because it's right for the book.

My initial reaction was that a thief would not put the money back. You could invert the phrase, eg:

Feeling like a thief,
I put it back,
all the way back where it was,
where nobody knew.

Nevertheless, this is more like life support on a section that isn't working. It would be better for your book (and for your reader) if you rework it. If you don't, I suspect that over time it will become one of the parts of the book that you're least happy with.

An Timire

In this confusing metaphor, you have some powerful company -- the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 5:2, to be precise:
"For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night."

Some of Christendom interpret the "thief" part literally and expect that the second coming of Christ will feature a sudden disappearance of valuables (Christians) that will surprise humanity, much as a burglary victim would be surprised one night to come home to a missing telly/jewelry. Others simply interpret that "thief" reference to mean that (like a thief) you can't know with certainty when the Messiah might make an encore appearance.

The term "thief" makes many of us think that someone is making off with some goods. I think you mean something more like "intruder" or "voyeur".

Ruth Goring

Wow. I guess as a poet I read this differently from most people. "Like a thief" gives the passage an air of mystery that I love. I DON'T think it's "showing" rather than "telling," because the boy doesn't stop to explain what he means by this.

Sometimes we copyeditors want to make sure everything is perfectly understandable. But some texts are richer because they AREN'T perfectly or immediately understandable. A couple of folks commenting here have mentioned the Bible--I shudder to think how we would shred it if we copyedited it to make everything clear!

Sometimes our most-loved phrases in our writing really should be loved & protected. That's what I'd do with this one!

frances levy

I like the image your words convey and have no problem with the metaphor. That said, I agree with Melissaipsa - test drive it with some children. If it works for them, ignore the naysayers.

John Cowan

"Kill your darlings" may be good advice for beginning writers, because they often are attached to ornateness that serves no purpose. But here's Samuel Johnson, admittedly a very ornate writer even by the standards of an ornate century, defending his style with his usual common sense:

"I [Boswell] read to him a letter which Lord Monboddo had written to me, containing some critical remarks upon the style of his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. His Lordship praised the very fine passage upon landing at Icolmkill; but his own style being exceedingly dry and hard, he disapproved of the richness of Johnson's language, and of his frequent use of metaphorical expressions. JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, this criticism would be just, if in my style, superfluous words, or words too big for the thoughts, could be pointed out; but this I do not believe can be done. For instance; in the passage which Lord Monboddo admires, 'We were now treading that illustrious region,' the word illustrious, contributes nothing to the mere narration; for the fact might be told without it: but it is not, therefore, superfluous; for it wakes the mind to peculiar attention, where something of more than usual importance is to be presented. "Illustrious!"--for what? and then the sentence proceeds to expand the circumstances connected with Iona. And, Sir, as to metaphorical expression, that is a great excellence in style, when it is used with propriety, for it gives you two ideas for one;--conveys the meaning more luminously, and generally with a perception of delight.'"

"More luminously and with a perception of delight." I like that.

True Fan

Just let it go. We really can't give you any meaningful opinion with this little bit of the story. So much is unknown to us without more context. Your copy editor did read it in its entirety and it didn't work for her. Trust her, not the pandering of the above. Cheers.


Although I fully understand the advice to "Just let it go," I had the same experience reading the passage as Greencaret. Before I know what the offending phrase was, it was specifically the "like a thief" phrase that hooked me - brought the passage alive - let me inside to feel what the protagonist was feeling. This to me is the connection point - the juice of the passage!

So, for me (and some other poetically minded readers) this little gem does just what you intended. For some others, who in my very biased opinion are too unidimensional and unimaginative regarding the complexity of "thief," this is a cognitive sticking point.

Would changing it to "like a sneak-thief" sufficiently broaden the concept for the literal minded? Sadly, only for some. So like many creative, expressive concepts that force the reader to stretch against their will, for the good of the larger piece, I suppose we must "kill the darlings."


It's a logic thing. I think readers get your meaning - the fear of discovery a thief may feel in the act of stealing, and the associated terror and guilt - but the following action of the boy belies the definition of thief. To bring the emotional content and the definition into an alignment, you would have to say "thief in reverse," or something along that line, in my opinion.


Nope, I liked the image I got, but it wasn't the image you intended. I thought the child felt like a thief (and thought maybe he took some money). I think what you were looking for was "accomplice."

I agree with many other comments: perhaps the ambiguity is acceptable. Can you live with the other possible interpretations? Then stet it.

Thanks for being so open about your process. I am a full-time editor who has learned to embrace the edits of my own occasional writing. Darned if they don't improve my work! (Wish I could have an editor for this comment.)


"I put it back, like a thief...." The prepositional phrase "like a thief" modifies "put back," so really you are saying he put it back in the manner a thief would put something back, which is counter-intuitive and not your intended meaning from my reading. The experience made him feel uneasy and guilty but that is not what you wrote. The way he puts it back is like a covert agent or spy, so as to go undetected, but that loses the guilty knowledge you wish to convey


Keep it! No changes.

Katherine McNamara

That beautiful, startling image lifts the prose out of the ordinary. You mustn't let it go! Your editors are dismayingly literal, as if asking you to explain a joke or a poem.

The author must (always) have the last word. Her name, not the editor's, is on the work.

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