Between bouts of hating what we write, we may admire or be quite satisfied with our creations. And we’re entitled to. But there’s a difference between these feelings and excessive love of our own words. Such love blinds us to editorial blunders and reduces the possibilities of publication.
Over two hundred years ago, the author, literary critic, editor, lexicographer, and fierce intellectual Samuel Johnson admonished, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out” (James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., Vol. 2, in Quotes on Editing: The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page, http://www.samueljohnson.com/editing.html#763).
Many writers are familiar with the similar and more recent decree, first uttered by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1916 (“On the Art of Writing”) and widely attributed to Faulkner. Stephen King choruses the declaration, with a flourish, in On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” (p. 197).
For effective and salable work, we must learn to edit our work with less parental pride and more outsider objectivity. We must learn to combat that self-enchantment and to cut courageously.
“But wait!” you exclaim. “How do I detect too much love? How do I know what to cut? How do I develop that critical eye?” Here I offer three unmistakable touchstones, gleaned from my own and other writers’ red-faced experiences.
- Your body tells you.
As you look at a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, you feel something. Maybe it’s an uneasiness, a slight nausea, a moment of dizziness, a sudden flush, a sinking stomach.
Listen to your body. It’s telling you, first, that the passage needs work, and second, that you’re too invested in it. Soothe your forehead with a cool wet cloth or papyrus, take a sip of cucumber water, and face it. It’s time to cut.
- Your mind protests.
The moment you admit that passage could require cutting, your mind springs into action. It defends, reasons, and rationalizes:
- “This passage is needed! It’s explanatory, descriptive, lyrical, mood-setting, eloquent, graphic, moving, exciting, powerful . . . .”
- “It proves my genius!”
- “Look at all the drafts I’ve produced and sour-cream chips I’ve consumed! Look how hard I’ve worked!”
As unalterably logical and reasonable these defenses seem, they aren’t. The first cry shows the extremes of your runaway ardor. The second attests every novice writer’s ultimate fantasy—you’ll be acclaimed and rewarded without having to pay your dues. The third betrays you as writer-victim.
And face something else: No reader—parent, partner, friend, colleague, editor, stranger—cares how much time, effort, and calories you’ve put in. All they want is to be entranced and seduced into continued reading.
- Your emotions blind you.
This condition is a little more subtle than the others. The offending words may still captivate you with an ill-fated overattachment. You love the passage for the wrong reasons and will go to astonishing lengths to hold onto it. A few . . .
- Having received a rejection with that passage singled out, did you already start an angry letter to the editor denouncing her oafish sensibility?
- Would you gladly rewrite the entire piece to preserve this passage?
- Are you rarin’ to throw out everything else and start a new piece around the passage?
If you’re blushing or reluctantly nodding, you’re in trouble.
I speak from sad experience. Recently, ready to email an essay to an editor, I glanced at the opening sentence. Having reworked it countless times, I loved its witty originality and sparkling alliteration. Only then did I see, shocked, that this all-important sentence conveyed the exact opposite of what I wanted to say!
I cursed, raged, and rationalized. Finally, I sighed, and for the next two hours rewrote the entire first paragraph.
When you’ve finally performed the expunging surgery, bind up your wounds with one or more of these soothers:
- Save the passage. Tuck it in a file labeled “Lost Loves” or “Cut But Not Forgotten.”
- Tell yourself (repeatedly) how much better your piece is without the passage.
- Praise yourself for being such an incisive editor. Think how proud your mother would be, and your old English teacher.
- Leave the piece alone, at least for a day and preferably more. You’re not abandoning it but letting your subconscious simmer without interference. Why this detachment works remains an eternal mystery. But use it. When we go do something entirely different, preferably a rote activity, we come back with more distance. We see what to do (those signals again), cringe at what we see, and immediately operate.
- If the hole left by cutting still seems unfillable, or you can’t nudge out a decent transition, just start writing. You’ll eventually get into the flow of the piece.
- Read some of the best literature. Notice the conciseness and freshness, the economy of words, and how your imagination fills in the spaces. Be inspired. Model.
- Read some of the worst literature(!) Observe the flaws and clichés (television is good for this too), and you’ll be more able to spot them—and edit them out—in your own work.
- Congratulate yourself for having finally developed that precious and elusive faculty all writers covet, editorial distance.
- If you’re still suffering from abandonment of your lost darling, keep in mind that someday, somewhere, that rejected passage may reappear, ready to grow up. It may float unbidden into your head while you’re working on another piece. You’ll rapturously find that, with a few judicious adjustments, this now-mature passage will fit exactly where you need it.
As you listen to your body-mind-emotion messages, you’ll demonstrate tough love toward those too-favorite passages. You’ll resist the mighty urge to defend, rationalize, alibi, or hang on. Like a great parent, you’ll be proud of your well-worded work, and your acceptances will increase.
© 2017 Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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