November 30, 2004

Cut big, then small.

After we overcome writer’s block, it is easy to fall in love with our words. Jacqui Banaszynski reaches a point where she feels so immersed in her work that every reflection, conversation, observation seems connected to her writing passion.  She calls this “being in full story.”

That is a good and powerful feeling., bBut it can lead to a bad effect. ¶ When we fall in love with all our quotes, all our characters, all our anecdotes, all our metaphors, it seems impossible for us to kill any of them. But kill we must. In 1914 British author Arthur Quiller Couch put it more bluntly: “Murder your darlings,” he wrote.

Such ruthlessness is best applied at the end of the process, where the free flow of creativity can be replaced moderated by cold-hearted judgment. To become a card-carrying member of Chip Scanlan’s 10 Percent Club, A fierce discipline and clear-eyed evaluation must hold the writer accountable and make every word count.

“Vigorous writing is concise,” wrote William Strunk when E.B. White was still his student. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

But how to do that?

Begin by cutting the big stuff. Donald Murray taught me that “Bbrevity comes from selection, not compression.” is wisdom I learned from Donald Murray. That requires lifting whole parts from the work. When Maxwell Perkins edited the work of Thomas Wolfe, he often confronted monumental manuscripts that could be measured by the pound. The famous editor once advised the famous author: “It does not seem to me that the book is over-written.  Whatever comes out of it must come out block by block and not sentence by sentence.” For example, One four-page passage about Wolfe’s uncle was reduced to six words: “Henry, the oldest, was now thirty.”

If your goal is to achieve concision and precision precision and concision in your work, begin by pruning the big limbs. You can shake out the dead leaves later. This process requires selection:

  • Cut out any passage that does not support the focus or central theme of the story.

  • Cut the weakest.If you have a number of quotations, anecdotes, scenes that sharpen the point of the story, cut the weakest of these, which will to give greater power to the strongest.

  • Cut any passage you have written to avoid prosecutorial editing.Re-visit any passage you have written just to satisfy what you think will be your editor’s requirements.Cut

  • Don’t invite editors to cut based on their judgment. You know the story better. Mark “optional trims.” Now ask yourself whether those options Should they become actual cuts.

Even If you don’t havelack time for much revision, give yourself time shoot for a “draft and a half.” That means cutting phrases, words, even syllables. The greatest model for such word editing is William Zinsser. Take a look at pages 10-11 of his book “On Writing Well.” On those pages, Zinsser reveals how he cut the clutter out of manuscript pages of from final drafts of his own book. “Although they look like a first draft, they had already been rewritten and retyped…four or five times. With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that is not doing useful work.”

In his draft, Zinsser writes of the struggling reader: “My sympathies are entirely with him. He’s not so dumb. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer of the article has not been careful enough to keep him on the proper path.” That passages seems lean enough to me, so it’s instructive to watch the author slice the fat zero in on the weakest words. In his revision ‘entirely’ gets the knife. So does the sentence ‘He’s not so dumb.’ So does ‘of the a article.’ And so does ‘proper.’  (I confess that I would keep ‘proper path,’ just for the alliteration. Keeping you on theBut ‘path’ contains the meaning of ‘proper.’

The revised passage: “My sympathies are with him. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.” Twenty-seven words do more work than the original 36. , a cut of 25 percent.

Here are some targets for cuts. Look for:

1Look for Adverbs that intensify rather than modify the meaning:  just, certainly, entirely, extremely, completely, exactly.
2Look for Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious: in the story, in the article, in the movie, in the city.
3Look for Phrases that grow on verbs:  seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
4)Look for Abstract nouns that contain active verbs: consideration becomes considers; judgment becomes judges; observation becomes observes.
5) Restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon.

(Replace with final paragraph) So far, I have written 807 words. To become a member of Chip Scanlan’s “Ten Percent Club,” I must cut about 80 words. I’ve cut more than 100 words, about 13 percent of the total. Click here to see what I found.  

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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