The Courage to Cut

This article is about deleting from your writing all the words and paragraphs and stories that are unnecessary. I didn't know anything about this practice when I first started writing books. This is why I am embarrassed to open those books today. 

George Saunders, an American short story author who has been featured in the New Yorker, once wrote a science fiction novel about human beings who sold themselves as yard art to affluent suburban families. Or so he told us. Nobody got to read that novel, because he cut around 80% of it. What he left was a cheerfully surreal series of diary entries written from the perspective of a well-to-do dad trying his hardest to give his family the life they deserved. So he bought a living piece of yard art. The shortened version was published in the New Yorker, which is the best literary magazine in the world.

Saunders, like the American writer Ernest Hemingway who inspired him, lives by the scalpel. He reads his manuscripts carefully, cutting anything in his writing that causes even the slightest hesitation while reading. This practice supports his reader through a famously difficult task: continuing to read.

Another American author, named William Faulkner, referred to this practice as murdering your (well, his) darlings. The phrase captures just how difficult the practice is. 

Imagine that you have just spent 10 hours working on a book chapter. These weren't the sort of exciting hours where you were able to decant beautiful stories from brain to page. They were 10 frustrating and difficult hours that were like lifting an upright piano up three flights of stairs. But you have put in the time, and now you have maybe 20 pages that you are proud of. There are jokes that make you smile. Anecdotes that illustrate your point. Metaphors that you invented off of your coffee-stained shirt cuff. 

Now load the pistol, and murder those metaphors execution-style. Highlight and delete your offspring. If you can survive the nauseating task of killing what you have toiled over for days and weeks, then your readers will be left with something special. It is simple math.

Why Cutting Leads to Higher Quality Writing

If I am writing a chapter about grading practices, then I will probably write around 5500-8000 words. In those 5500-8000 words, I will probably make 2-3 arguments, and each of those arguments will be supported by 2-3 examples. Here is a run-down of what that looks like:

Argument 1, Example 1 (5/10 on the Patrick scale)

Argument 1, Example 2 (6/10 on the Patrick scale)

Argument 2, Example 1 (9/10 on the Patrick scale)

Argument 2, Example 2 (6/10 on the Patrick scale)

And so on. In red, I have listed my subjective opinion of each example as I go through and read it. (If I am in a cranky mood, then all examples receive scores of 1/10 on my scale. It is best to come back to these later.)

In this hypothetical example, I have one bit of writing that I am proud of, and three that I am only moderately proud of. If I am serious about the chapter and I want it to be something people will enjoy reading, then I will cut examples 1.1, 1.2, and 2.2. I will highlight them and delete them. Then I will reread the section to see if anything is missing. That is to say, I run a test to see if those examples were necessary at all. It might turn out to be the case that I was giving examples out of habit, and not because the writing called for it.

If, however, I feel like an argument requires another example, then I will rewrite it until it registers a 8/10 or higher. This takes a lot of time and patience and the occasional grimace. 

What Happens When You Don't Murder Your Intellectual Children

I recently read the book Maybe Teaching is a Bad Idea by the deceased college professor Larry Spence. I loved the premise, but I had trouble reading the book. Spence didn't cut enough. Every chapter started off with 3-4 stories, beginning in childhood and stretching into college and graduate school and so on. By the third story, I found myself skipping ahead to see when Spence might be moving on. It was like listening to a lecture where the instructor makes a point, then gives 15 examples of what they meant. At some point the audience tunes out. 

It would have been much better if Spence had examined each of his stories and thought to himself, "Now which story accomplishes my goal better than the others?" and then deleted everything else. But, o’ course, he died. 

This is hard to do, especially when, as the author, you have grown fond of the examples you have spent so much time working on. It is hard when you are driven by deadlines and personal goals to write 1000 or 2000 words a day. It is hard when academic journals don’t care if your writing is any good. But if you care about your reader, then you’ll do it. Highlight and delete. 


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