How to select my best stuff — and cut the rest

Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.

Problem 9:

How to select my best stuff – and cut the rest


1. In the margins of a draft, place brackets next to any story element that works.

Any inhibition to cut relates to an inability to select the best material. Begin then with what works in the story; consider cutting what’s left. To do this well requires that the writer transcend the intrinsic negativity built into many writers and editors. We are much better at identifying what needs work in a story than what already works.

2. Go through your bracketed elements and assign each one a value from one to 10.

Even after you’ve identified some of your best work – and cut other elements – don’t be afraid to repeat the process, forcing yourself to distill the very best from just the best. Writers come to love words, scenes, characters not central to the focus of the story. To cut them is so hard that a famous British scholar compared it to homicide when he encouraged his students to “Murder your darlings.”

3. Continue this process until you have assigned high or low numbers to each bracketed passage.

You can see that this process is more than a form of troubleshooting. It requires critical thinking, giving value to some elements of the work over others. By elevating the best, you cause the weaker elements to stand out in sharp relief. Those weaker limbs, which sap the strength of the whole, are ready for pruning.

4. Consider keeping the best of the best – and letting go of the rest.

If our words are our children, and we love them all, it doesn’t mean that we can’t kick them out of the house on occasion, for their own good and our own. The trick is to build your standards as you progress in your writing project. It will be much easier to cut as you get closer to deadline and length limits become clearer.

5. You do not have to “kill” weaker elements in a story. You can “save” them for another story, another day.

So we are not going to put our wayward children into an orphanage or a workhouse after all. It turns out we can “save” them. Journalists are good at this part of the process. Even if they have to cut their story in half, the other half and all the materials in the notebook can live to see another day. A telling quote, a revealing anecdote can be used later as a story unfolds in a community, a type of report we call a “follow.”

6. If it helps, think of your focus as a knife.

We think of focus as a visual effect, a lens we look through to see the world more clearly. But I have come to see it as a knife, a blade I can use to slice the fat out of a story, leaving behind only the strength of muscle and bone. We call it “cutting,” after all. Any element that does not support the focus gets cut.

7. Ask a test reader you trust to mark the strongest and weakest elements in your story.

Even when writers are trying their best to do good work, they can easily lose perspective. A writer has handed in a manuscript of 555 pages (yes, I did!), even though the contract calls for 355 pages. Two hundred pages have to go, and the writer may be able to cut half of those on his own. But those last 100 pages.…Having reached a kind of mental and emotional paralysis, the writer needs a rescue. A good editor can help, of course, but not all editors are created equal, so don’t be afraid to ask a friend or another writer you trust to offer an opinion.

8. In your reading, look for passages you might cut – even from the work of authors you admire.

As you raise standards for yourself, so you will raise them for other writers, including some of your favorites. You will become less patient with writers who prefer the modifier over the verb. You will see whole passages that prove repetitious or beside the point. The good deletions will be invisible to you unless you gain access to earlier versions of the author’s work. You will come to honor those who put into practice William Strunk Jr.’s advice that the dutiful writer should make “every word tell.”

9. Watch the DVD of a movie that contains deleted or extra scenes. Consider why particular scenes were left on the cutting-room floor.

It was fascinating to see on YouTube a deleted scene from the original "Star Wars" movie between Luke Skywalker and his childhood friend Biggs Darklighter. It comes early and is all whispered talk (no action), in which Biggs reveals his plan to fly off and join the rebellion against the Empire. Luke will be stuck at home for at least another season before he gets to join the Academy. However interesting for "Star Wars" fanatics, the scene has too much gab for such an action-packed adventure, and the director found other ways to act out the background of the story.

10. Learn from the selection strategies of other artists.

This line of inquiry began for me when I heard that jazz artist Miles Davis described how long it took him to learn which notes to leave out. So creating a work of art – a novel, a screenplay, a concerto, a painting – may at first move the artist to consider what to include, but the process also demands a discipline of exclusion, the ability to make tough choices about what really matters.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    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 member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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