The Cutting Room Floor
I mentioned last week that I’m trying to write more posts for the intermediate or published author… and I’ve decided I’m also going to try and include more posts about craft. You know, the actual process and technique of writing. So today I want to talk about self-editing. Specifically: cutting.
One of the things I’ve noticed in reading manuscripts lately is that my editing often consists of deleting unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs. A common mistake writers make, even experienced writers, is overwriting. Too many words. Over-describing things. Telling us what we already know. Surplus adjectives and adverbs.
An excess of words makes your writing bloated and boring. It robs your reader of opportunities to figure things out for themselves, to make discoveries about your characters and have “aha!” moments about your plot.
Elmore Leonard, in his article, “Easy on the Hooptedoodle,” famously gave this advice: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Of course, easier said than done. But as you’re reading through your work, watch for places in which you get bogged down, or you stumble over a word or phrase, or the descriptions go on too long. Ask yourself whether something should be cut.
If you are particularly enamored of a certain turn of phrase you used… a beautiful sentence, an especially evocative description, a clever metaphor… be aware that these might have to be the first to go! (Some writers refer to this as “killing their babies.” It’s really hard.) Whenever your writing calls attention to itself, whenever a reader would stop and say to themselves, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” your story is at risk. You might be guilty of author intrusion, stopping the reader in their tracks, taking them outside the story so they will notice your writing. Big no-no. So carefully consider all those special babies of yours, and ask yourself whether they move the story forward—or distract from the story.
Award-winning and bestselling author Isabel Allende was asked to pass along the most useful piece of writing advice she’s ever received. She said this:
“When in doubt, cut without mercy. Read everything aloud so you will notice tone, rhythm, repetition, clichés, etc. Write a thousand drafts if necessary.” *
I agree. Cut without mercy.
Q4U: How do you approach self-editing? Where are you in your ability to cut? Tell us of a painful edit that ended up improving your writing.
[*Isabel Allende quote from Writer’s Digest, October 2008, p. 44.]