When Words Have to Die

One of the most difficult tasks we have as writers is editing our work.  When you are developing your writing skills, as a fledgling or accomplished writer, almost any article, book, or lecture on writing emphasizes the need to “cut”.  Here are some examples:

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Dr. Seuss

“If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”                                                 Ernest Hemingway

“Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”           Mark Twain

“There’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.”                                                                                          Josh Billings

And a favorite of mine is a story Stephen King relates in On Writing. As a young writer, he worked for John Gould, American humorist, essayist, columnist, and author.  A piece of advice that Gould gave King was, “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” That is a question I carry with me as I’m writing and editing, “Is this part of the story?”

But it is harder than you think.  After struggling to get our “brilliant” ideas into our story, we are convinced that every word is germane to a successful read.  That is until we run it by our critique group, editor, agent, whatever and then the dreaded, “you should cut this out…” remark slaps us into reality. The “edit out” dagger pierces our sensitive little writer’s heart and we are sure it isn’t possible to cut those brilliantly scribed pieces. But if we’re smart, we listen.

I think the process is so difficult because those words may be some of the best writing we’ve done. The imagery is beyond lovely, the character is stoic, the humor is perfect so how can we cut it out? Well, it may be all that but as Mr. Gould advised, they are not the story.

For me, I sweep all of those pieces I think are so brilliantly done into a little junk folder rather than the grave.  I pull them out occasionally and see if I’m writing anything where they may be part of the story. I don’t kill them off, I just put them to rest and hope that some day, they’ll find a home.