A few years ago, a friend (picture book author, blogger, and bookstore owner Elizabeth Bluemle) was giving me her editing notes on an early draft of my first novel when I stumbled onto a trick that has made my efforts at revision not only easier, but more effective ever since. About half way through our session, she pointed out an awkward sentence and suggested that I reword it. I saw that she was right, but also that it would not be easy to fix the problem. I had actually spent quite a bit of time on that sentence when I first wrote it, but now, thanks to Elizabeth’s sharp eye, realized that I hadn’t quite surmounted all the problems after all, and I didn’t relish the prospect of returning to the scramble.
I had been responding to each of her notes by proposing possible solutions as we went along, but this time, I was stuck. I was about to tell her that I agreed with her critique but would have to mull over the best fix, when the breakthrough came:
“You know?” I said. “I think I can just cut the entire paragraph!”
I’m always on the lookout for material to cut, of course, but it’s not easy to do that in a vacuum, and I would probably never have thought to cut this paragraph if my attention hadn’t been drawn to it because of the one clunky sentence within it.
I thought this would turn out to be a rare and lucky case, but as Elizabeth resumed her litany of suggested edits, I found that many more of them could be dealt with the same way.
“Okay, I’m just going to cut all that, as well.”
At one point, I cut an entire page.
Ever since then, when encountering a problem in a manuscript, my first question is not, “How do I fix it?” but “Can I just cut it?” The answer is “Yes” more often than you might guess, but it makes sense: The fact that a sentence or an idea that’s expressed doesn’t sound quite right is sometimes a sign that it doesn’t belong in the piece in the first place. By asking the right question first, we can often achieve the win-win of improving the writing while also reducing the work!
It happened a few times just working on this post. The following sentence from the first paragraph above once included the italicized clause:
I had actually spent quite a bit of time on that sentence when I first wrote it, and thought that I finally nailed it, but now, thanks to my friend’s sharp eye, realized that I hadn’t quite surmounted all the problems after all, and I didn’t relish the prospect of reentering the scramble.
Almost as soon as I wrote that sentence, I noticed that “nailed”, in addition to being a rather tired stock term, also didn’t fit into the metaphor underlying “surmounted” and “scramble”. I tried to think of a better word or phrase, but the problem was that it needed to be a synonym for “surmounted” and it would be hard to find one that stayed within the governing image of clambering to the top of a pile of problems. And even if I could find a word that fit technically, playing out a metaphor across too many terms can sound forced and “writerly”.
The solution was, of course, to simply cut the clause. It not only eliminated the stock term and the mixed metaphor, but allowed me to conclude this post in a nicely self-referential way.
Except that that wasn’t the end after all! Looking at my first paragraph once more, I now see that the cut could have been much bigger. I could have cut that entire final sentence!
The work of revision is never done, no matter what tricks you find for doing it better.