If You Like It, Take It Out

I’ve heard the same mantra from a number of authors, that in editing, the surest way to identify and remove the crap is to seek out the words you thought brilliant. Some advocate taking out those parts you like the most. The problem with both is that there is a risk you’ll remove precisely what makes the work you.

In practice, I find a great deal of truth in this; however, finding the bits to delete are not at all the same as looking for what I liked or thought brilliant. Rather, it is finding the poetry in the prose. Put another way, I seek passages that sound as though some other writer wrote them – and, importantly, don’t advance the story in any real way. These are the bits we’ve inserted to demonstrate we can write.

Readers decide you can write based on whether they want to finish.

A prime example, and one I initially thought was lovely follows. Now, in editing, I can see it’s pure rubbish.

He was black heat, boiling in darkness – incensed, but not embittered. She was soft, yielding, bending, as a blade of grass would bend in the wake of darkness’ hurricane. She had learned, the dark-haired one, that though she bends, she would never break. Then, the storm over, when once again she rose – ah, then there would be hell to pay. As One, they marched, he igneous, she fluid and yielding, together burning with righteous fire like heaven’s own lava.

What a pile. It says, “He was angry; she was yielding, though strong. It was the combination of his fire and her determination that drew them together and which would be their weapon.” The reaction? Who gives a shit? This is page 260 – do they not know your characters by now?

Leave off the poetry, and write simply. Writing 101, useful every day.

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10 thoughts on “If You Like It, Take It Out

  1. Have you read Niall Williams? ‘The four letters of love’. It’s very poetic and beautifully written.but he’s Irish and it’s an Irish story so it works. I loved it but couldn’t read too many books in that style. On the other hand JM Coetzee’s (Nobel Prize ) writes extremely economically (I read ‘Youth’ ). Two opposite perspectives.

    1. I have not read Niall Williams. I read a Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, which was very lyrical. I loved it. Then I tried to read his other books, and couldn’t get through the 1st chapter. I suppose it’s a delicate balance.

      Nowadays, even poetry is expected to be economical. You are allowed more wordplay, and grammar rules don’t apply, but words for the sake of words is no longer in fashion. I find that the more I read, the less patience I have for lyricism. It’s frightfully hard to make lovely language sound simple. I admire those whom can.

  2. The idea to take out all the words or passages that sound like someone else wrote them is brilliant. Sometimes we do try too hard..HEY ITS JUNE!! Woo hoo. Short story month! Ok the woo hoo comes from another voice, I hate that voice! I would never in a million years use that voice. delete delete. c

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