The other day I was working with a writer who was struggling to revise a short, online marketing post with a strong call to action.
The draft started with a catchy opening line – one that had worked well in another campaign.
This specific post needed to communicate several ideas to set up its call to action. No matter how hard the writer tried, she struggled to cover that ground gracefully. Everything sounded clunky.
After several iterations, the source of the problem became clear: the terrific opening line.
It was catchy and clever, with a subtle emotional resonance. But it pulled the text away from the job it had to do.
Once she replaced the opening line, the rest came together quickly.
The art of revision is knowing what to cut, and then having the courage to do so.
Every revision process typically involves slicing and dicing – eliminating needless words, choosing strong verbs instead of lame adverbs, and so on.
But streamlining the words is the easy part. Deleting your ideas is tougher.
Sometimes, if we want to serve the reader, we must remove content that we have grown attached to. You know, stuff like:
- A favorite opening line – the one that sounded so clever when it landed in your head like a gift from the muses
- The brilliant metaphor that almost works – not quite, but almost
- The story that isn’t necessary
That’s when the famous writing advice rings in your head: “Murder your darlings.”
That advice apparently originated in Sir Arthur QuillerCouch’s 1916 book on writing. It’s been quoted and refined by authors sense. Here’s how Stephen King phrases it in his wonderful memoir On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
I love that book, but the advice sounds extra creepy when coming from the author of The Shining.
Murder, kill … These are strong verbs indeed. That’s because it takes fortitude to let go of sections that you’ve worked on.
The more attached you are to the words, the harder it is to cut them, and the more you’ll try to make them work.
That’s one reason for waiting between drafting and revising: we need distance, detachment from our words.
If you’re not the murderous sort, take a different approach.
Don’t kill your darlings – relocate them.
Create a Home for Unused Excerpts
The process of writing a nonfiction book is filled with false starts and digressions, even when I’m working from an outline. The first drafts end up filled with extraneous content, such as
- Multiple stories and anecdotes to illustrate a point
- Impassioned diatribes about things I feel strongly about
- Thoughtful analyses of abstract topics
Before publishing, I have to cut a great deal.
Instead of trashing these sections, I cut and paste them into a special file, which I keep alongside the other project files. It’s like a home for unwanted prose.
This way, I’m not throwing the words away. Instead, I’m putting them aside for another time.
Relocating the words, rather than trashing them, takes the sting out of cutting the ideas you love.
The next time you’re faced with the pain of paring down your prose, try this strategy instead. Keep a running file of things you plan to use again – the stories, lines, or ideas that need a different home.
Often, the content in this file ends up being useful fodder for a blog post, an interview, or another work. If you’re a fiction writer, perhaps it will contain the germ of a short story.
After time has passed, you may return to this content and find that you don’t love it like you once did. That’s fine, too. Channel your inner Marie Kondo (author of the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up). Thank the content for serving you in your writing process, then let it go.
An online course: Sign up by March 14 for my new class Revising Your Writing.