Natural Born Idea Killers: How To Edit, And What To Cut

So, okay, editing is important, and in my last post about writing I covered some tactics for “how” to edit your work, but I didn’t even touch the “what.”  When you’re editing… what do you cut?  How can you be sure what to cut?  It’s scary, no?  Okay, listen, I come bearing very comforting good news about this– we’re all natural born editors.  Let’s do a quick example, based on actual real life.  Warning: things are gonna get META for a second!

So, okay, you’ll see why I’m asking about this in a minute, but how many times have you heard a writer say something like “I write in the morning, when it’s quiet” or “I like to write in cafes” or “I still write by hand, with a pencil?”  If you ever listen to writers, you’ve probably heard this kind of thing pretty often.  Now, have you ever heard a writer say something like “I edit first thing, before anyone else in the house is awake” or “I like a cup of chamomile tea when I’m editing” or “I still edit by hand with white-out, because that’s how I learned my craft?”  Probably not.  Writing is romantic, and editing is kind of gross.  In books about writing, in interviews on NPR, and even when teaching classes and workshops, most writers don’t talk much about editing their work… because it’s gross.  Here’s some proof:

Example A: Talking about writing is fun and romantic.

Writer: I wrote ten pages today– the ideas were just pouring out– I think I’ve had a major breakthrough!  The ending just came to me, I don’t know from where, a passing muse must have kissed me on the cheek and everything was just flowing.  I took an empty page and filled it, I’ve made something out of nothing… like a wizard!

Friend: Wow, you sound really gifted.

Writer: I am! I’m fabulous! Let’s drink champagne and make a baby!

Example B: Talking about editing is gross.

Writer: I was up until 3am, deleting half the book, just thwacking my “backspace” key around like a bludgeon and murdering all these stupid, pointless ideas that I used to love… it’s all kind of a blur… half-baked themes… gratuitous sub-plots… I think I got them all, but they were everywhere… :shudder:… everywhere… I think I got them all… it’s over now… but I can’t stop seeing them, the pictures in my mind… let’s just say it turns out that a lot of what I write is trash, and nobody should ever have to see it, and it’s not that I’m ashamed of my ideas exactly it’s more like they are pointless and deranged and hollow and totally poisonous and should be burned to ash with a blowtorch...

Friend: Wow, you sound like a psycho. When was the last time you went to a party or something… or, like, had a meal?

Writer: I don’t deserve meals.

So, okay, why am I showing you this seamy underbelly?  Because it’s a classic example of editing.  The moment you decide that you’d rather brag to a friend about your writing than kvetch to that friend about your editing, you’ve shown that you’re a natural born editor– you know which part of your story to focus on– you’d rather sing with joy than bitch or moan.

But, that’s not the right choice– it’s just a choice.  (In fact, if you’re me, you choose the opposite, and you decide you’d rather talk about the editing than about the writing; you find rhapsodic celebration dull, and prefer the challenge of making the gross thing acceptable.)

The key thing here though is, as you can see, people naturally edit the way they talk about writing.  In fact, you naturally edit the way you talk, and think, about everything.  How do you know “what to cut” when you talk to a romantic partner about your day at work?  How do you know “what to cut” when you reminisce about a wonderful trip you took a few years ago, and it seems magical and perfect?  When you’re in a bad mood, how do you know “what to cut” so the world seems dark and unfavorable to match your funk?  You and your brain edit your experiences constantly.

So, cut your writing the same way.  Listen to your first draft, take what’s most interesting and feels most relevant to your goal, and brush away the flecks of everything else that’s stuck to it.  Don’t be scared.  You do this every day in life.  You’ve done it every day constantly pretty much since you were born.

What’s the worst that happens?  Maybe after making a lot of cuts, your piece “hangs together less well” than it did before you started chopping.  So what?  That doesn’t mean you cut your piece wrong– it means you cut it to be your piece.  Maybe your perspective doesn’t make sense, is messy, isn’t tidy– it’s better to be honest than to be “right” anyway.  If you don’t love the text, write more, then cut it all again.

What’s the worst that happens?  Maybe after making a lot of cuts, your piece is more boring, flatter and less interesting than when you started chopping.  So what?  If your piece is boring, wouldn’t you rather know that now instead of after it gets published?  If you don’t love the text, write more, then cut it all again.

What’s the worst that happens?  Some of your brilliant ideas get cut, get shoved in a drawer, and nobody hugs you or pays you for them.  So what?  You’ll have more ideas, and probably better ones.  If you manage to somehow stay obsessed with an idea that you’ve cut, it can be the starting point for another writing project later… and if you don’t stay obsessed with it, then it wasn’t a big loss, eh?  If you don’t love the way something fits into your text, cut it, and if you want to, you can invite it to the party for another project at another time.

Remember: you already know how to edit.  You were born for this.

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