Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cutting Out Dead Wood

We came home yesterday to face a bunch of tree-trimmer trucks blocking the road by our driveway. Crews up in their buckets pierced the air with the noise of chain saws. Lopped-off limbs and chunks of upper trunks thudded to the ground. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and a steel-helmeted man with a reversible "stop/slow" sign directed cars down to one lane. These men had a job to do--trim and clear around telephone lines and cut out dead wood.

You're probably ahead of me, right? How part of our job as writers is to trim dead wood from our stories, and prune anything that impedes the action's progress? There are adverbs and adjectives to cut, backstory, cliches, and passive tense to thin back. Redundancy to delete, telling to lop off so that the showing "shows" through. All kinds of word trimming goes on in our craft.

I found another treasure in the "jungle" of my office book shelf: The Writer's Book of Wisdom, 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft, by Steven Taylor Goldsberry (Writer's Digest Books 2005). Rule #93 states:

          "In the days before computers, a writer would literally have to cut and paste. That's what those commands on your PC refer to, kids, except that back then we used actual scissors and glue.
          "When we cut up a page and transferred the elements, an interesting thing happened: We learned to cut more than paste. And the resulting shorter copy read better.
          "An old formula says that the second draft should be 10 percent shorter than the first. The third draft 10 percent shorter than that...As you revise, try to cut your manuscript by at least 10 percent--that alone should improve the pacing. If you find that for every scene you trim, there's another you want to expand, ask yourself, 'How does this further the plot?'
          "If it doesn't, let it go."

If it doesn't further the plot--let it go. Great words for me this week. How about you? What do you see needs trimmed in your work this week?


  1. Great post!! I love the way you put it that we have to "let it go". That's such wise advice and so difficult to do sometimes! :-)

  2. Excellent post. I love the "let it go" but I'm horrible at letting things go, I get so attached and it is so hard to cut things. But I know I have too.

    Thanks for the wisdom.

  3. These are great words! I think they apply to other kinds of writing too, such as articles. Good stuff, thank you:)

  4. Fantastic post!! I need to remember to "let it go" and just live a little, feel okay to cut pieces I know need to be cut to make the story sparkle. Since I'm a panster the revisions are a huge disaster zone but I think I'm slowly grasping what needs to be done!

  5. So true. I teach this concept in my query letter writing classes. Why is it so hard to translate to novel-writing? Ugh. But great reminder.