Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Revise, revise, revise: cutting

Early installments of the book I’ve been writing date from three years ago, when frankly I didn’t know what I was doing. Revising that early material now, I find a lot that has to go because it doesn’t work or doesn’t fit anymore. So today’s post is about cutting.

False starts. I’m often unsure where to begin with a new subject, and a first draft may show more than one start. A chapter about the novel The Wire-Cutters by Mollie E. Davis originally began with this paragraph.

This novel ends with a young woman dropping an engagement ring over the side of a transatlantic liner. The ring was given to her by the brother of her new husband. The two men, without knowing they are brothers, have been arch enemies through most of the novel. Thus the story ends as it began, a young bride coming to believe that she has married the wrong man.

But this apparently didn’t go anywhere. The next paragraph took another tack. The first one, however, must have seemed too good to let go. It was still there. I wince now and cut it.

Tone.  My early work was heavily influenced by the tone I was taking in blog posts. Doing a bad imitation of other bloggers, my writing was full of mock conversations with the reader, self-important references to myself, forced analogies, and over-cleverness. The following manages to exhibit all four:

Confused yet? I’d call this a western novel duking it out with a very sentimental Southern melodrama. The result is a TKO. Giving the last scene to that unhappy bride finally tips the balance toward melodrama.

Dreadful. Notice the desperate attempt to link back to the bride in that “false start.” So this kind of stuff goes, too.

Condensing. I think it was Mark Twain who said it’s a terrible death to be talked to death. My writing tends to over-explain. If one example will do, I’m ready with several. If there’s some nuance that takes a paragraph to put into words, you’ll find me expecting a reader to wade through all that, too. Say something once and then say it again a couple of more times. Like I’ve just done in this paragraph.

Revising, I have to sort need-to-know information from what is just nice-to-knowThen start cutting back the nice-to-know. The result, with luck, is clear and succinct. Like this paragraph.

Summarizing a novel’s plot, for instance, means stripping it down to the basics and ignoring the wrinkles. What’s left is no more than what a reader needs in order to easily follow the rest of a discussion of the novel.

Digressions. I can digress like crazy. It comes with a habit of free-associating. There’s always some point of connection between the mainstream of a discussion and some side topic, but that side topic muscles in like it belongs there. In a looser format, you’d put that stuff in a sidebar, treating it as optional reading. More nice-to-know information.

In my case, digressions are a sign of poor organizing. As the first draft developed, I gradually settled on a series of topics I wanted to cover for each book I was discussing: plot, character, women, romance, villainy, race and ethnicity, East vs. West, storytelling style, and the writer's career. I can now compare the earliest first-draft chapters to that basic outline. What doesn’t fit into it is usually the digressions, and out they go.

Point first. I often need to write for a while before knowing what my point is. Finally it will show up at the end of a paragraph. Or I expect the reader to infer it without my having to put it into words.

To make it into draft #2, these paragraphs need an overhaul, with a clear statement of the point at the beginning. The rest of the paragraph, usually with some rewriting, then falls into place right after it.

Unsupported claims. Another first-draft habit is to state a point and then follow it with no clarification, no examples, no support, nothing. The rest of the paragraph is typically nice-to-know information about something else. Or a digression.

Writing of any kind is rhetoric, meaning you are making an argument. As a writer, you’re stating claims and making them persuasive by supporting them with evidence. Think of a lawyer summing up a case for the jury. The defendant is innocent because (a) she had no motive to kill her husband, (b) her fingerprints were not found the murder weapon, and (c) witnesses saw her somewhere else at the time of the crime.

So those unsupported claims I like to make have to be either developed orbetter yetcut.

To be continued.

Further reading:
Revise, revise, revise: audience

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Richard S. Wheeler, Badlands


  1. An occasional digression is necessary, I think, to break up the density of arguments. But they can be killer if there are too many. My wife says she admires my ability to avoid digressions in my stories. I guess I'm pretty single minded in many ways. Or perhaps just simple minded.

  2. Good post. But don't be too hard on yourself. I didn't think the snippet from your early blog was dreadful --just didn't sound like the "you" I've come to know. We are sometimes our own worst editors and cut too deeply, or not enough.

  3. Thoughtful post. Writing well is difficult. Sometimes I am paralyzed by my harsh self-criticism, and the only way I can start in again is to give myself permission to write badly. Eventually, I pump out the muddy water and reach the clear. You write the finest reviews I know of, and hope you will be kind to yourself.

  4. I agree with Mr. Wheeler re reviews. I think about every writer starts off badly. It's the cutting, cutting, and revision that clears it up.

    P.S. I hate those eye tests to get the comment posted and most blogs have them.

  5. Another comment: Take a look at Mary Doria Russell's blog article, "Writer Tech: I Hate This Book", a progress report on her book "Epitaph", at

  6. Ron, I too agree with what Mr. Wheeler says about your reviews. They are the finest reviews of westerns I have read and I hope your style, which I enjoy very much, will reflect in your book too. Thank you for a thoughtful post and comments from all the published writers above.