I’m in the process of editing some old story material to whip it into shape for submitting to literary magazines.
The editing process, for me, is a lot like sewing a quilt. I start out with a whole bunch of different fabrics (“scenes”), and I have to figure out which order they go in. I rearrange, take some out, gaze at the whole with a critical eye, add in others, reassess, and so forth until I have a beautiful pattern that tells a story.
Once I’ve got my scenes in order, it’s time to sew them together. I find “threads” that link the disparate elements of the story into a satisfying whole. Those threads may involve imagery, characters, or themes. I “sew” consecutive scenes together, so that they flow naturally from one to the other.
But there’s one tool that I couldn’t be without in this entire process.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s my #1 most essential editing tool. Want to know what it is?
It’s my Unused Bits file. Okay, so maybe the name could be snazzier, but the purpose of the file is simple:
It’s to store all the “unused bits” of the story in case I want them later.
90% of the editing process is unwriting—taking things out that aren’t essential, are repetitive, or muddy the story’s main idea.
But when I’m editing a story, I’m never totally sure what I need until I’m near the end.
When I write an amazing descriptive paragraph or hard-hitting one-liner, I don’t want to delete it just because I don’t think it fits.
So I simply cut and paste it to my Unused Bits file, where it will stay as testimony to my powers of clever writing. If I decide at some point that I DO need it after all, it will be there waiting for me.
I keep my Unused Bits file open in Word while I’m working on the draft of my story, so that I can glance over at any time and see if there’s anything that might help a transition or illustrate a point.
Nearly all my stories have an Unused Bits file attached to them, full of brilliant and bad ideas that didn’t make the cut.
A college professor told me I had to be ruthless when it came to unwriting. I couldn’t keep a paragraph or sentence just because it sounded clever or I loved it. Most often, she told me, it’s the bits of writing that we love best that have to go.
They have to go because they don’t serve the story, or they slow the pace, or they catch the reader’s attention simply because they are SO clever.
You want your reader’s attention to be on the story, not on your writing. Your writing should be as transparent as possible so as not to detract from the story being told.
But the problem with unwriting is that we get emotionally attached to what we’ve written. We love it so much that we don’t want it to go.
That’s why the Unused Bits file is so important.
When you cut a passage and put it in your Unused Bits file, you’re not bidding goodbye to it forever. You’re just moving it somewhere else. So you don’t feel the ache of loss as strongly as you would’ve if you’d just deleted the passage with one irrevocable swoop of delete button.
Is it possible that some of your best writing will end up unused? Of course.
If you’re really sad about binning excess material, you can use it as inspiration for a new story. It’s always there, in the Unused Bits file, whenever you need it.
Do I ever go back and use the material in my Unused Bits file? No. After the story is finished, I never look in that file again.
In many ways, the file is a crutch to help me be fearless in the face of editing. If I didn’t have it, I’d be much more cautious about what I cut out.
Bloating storytelling is a curse that even the best writers fall victim to. Ever read a series where each book in the series was fatter and more bloated than the last? Having more pages doesn’t make a book any better. If anything, it slows down the story.
Just remember: you don’t have to include ALL your ideas, not if it comes at the expense of the story you’re trying to tell.
If there’s an idea that you are particularly fond of, just put it aside. See if the story can breathe without it. You can always put it back in later.