Let’s Cut All the Bullsh*t

Some of the most frequent advice given to writers is to edit their writing strictly and severely, removing any extraneous text. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King recalls a newspaper editor telling him that so long as he took out all the bad parts, King would “never have to work for a living.” Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Even Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.” I’m not saying this is bad advice. Quite the contrary. It’s vital. It can also be terribly difficult to do.

Despite my earlier complaints about not being able to turn off my internal editor, my writing is typically rambling and wordy. As a lawyer, this can be a problem. My memos always require a ton of editing to get them down to the bare bones (I think my inner story-teller hates legalese and dry text with a furious passion). But this is good training for my fiction.

So how do I go about editing? Well, first think about what your text should do. In BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, Vonnegut had a great rule for short story writing: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” This rule counts for double when it comes to dialog, which can sometimes get away from a writer, stalling the plot and, even worse, boring the reader. Second, print out a hard copy of your draft (trust me, it’s just easier to work with).

Third, and this takes practice, you need to read your writing very slowly. I’m talking at a glacial pace. If you find yourself glossing over whole sentences, you’re reading way too quickly. Many will recommend reading your text out loud. While I think that can be useful for picking up accidental alliteration (see what I did there?), mistakes in tone, or realizing all your characters sound the same, I don’t find it useful when editing out extra bits. Speaking distracts me, preventing me from concentrating as sharply as I need to. Weigh each word carefully and decide if the word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, or sequence is really essential to the story. Constantly ask yourself, “Why is this here? Is there a better way to phrase this–a shorter phrase, a more precise verb? What work does this word/sentence/sequence do?” If you use an outline, to what extent does your piece sync up with it? Do you need to revise one or the other? If you write by the seat of your pants, think about drafting a brief outline at this stage, if only to make sure your plot stays on track.

Cut anything that isn’t essential. If it’s even questionable, you can probably take it out. This may seem harsh, but think about it from the reader’s (or agent’s, editor’s, or publisher’s) point of view: keep your story moving along and they will want to move with it. Slowing them down unnecessarily gives them a chance to put your book down and never return.

Yes, it sucks to take out whole bits or to realize you need to tear down your entire piece and begin again. And you can always keep those deleted bits for use later. The deleted pieces aren’t bad, they’re just not right for this story. Just remember, your writing will be much better once it’s edited. It’s worth the pain that comes from cutting all the bullsh*t.

How do you edit your writing? Any tips you’d like to share?