One thing that never ceases to annoy me about the process of writing is unwriting.
By unwriting, I mean throwing away lines, paragraphs, entire scenes and chapters that serve little function aside from slowing down the narrative.
I used to think that, the better I got at writing, the less I would have to throw away. Surely, the only reason I had to cut so much was because I wasn’t clear in my thinking. Once I became a GREAT writer, I would sit down and write an entire piece from start to finish with no cutting, pasting, or rearranging required.
Either I’m not any better at writing, or I was badly mistaken.
These days, I think great pieces of writing reflect the editing that went into them. Much had to be written and abandoned before the clear bones of the story began to show through.
The more you write, the better understanding you have of what you want to say and the many possible ways you can say it. Only after exploring all possible avenues can you start to see a clear path through the jungle of your topic.
Then you’re off and running. You can write with purpose and clarity. But the work you produced up until then? Those pages are probably worthless.
Back in college, I used to write 10 pages of thoughts before starting a 6-page paper. I needed to write down everything I could possibly say before deciding what it was that I wanted to say. Was I making a lot of extra work for myself? I don’t think so. Once I’d gotten the 10 pages out of the way, those 6-page papers flowed.
Julia Cameron argues that we should write 3 longhand pages the moment we wake up.For her, this is a spiritual practice. She considers these morning pages an essential “memory dump.” You get everything lurking in the shadows of your mind out of the way so that you can properly start your day. Otherwise, she says, all that stuff circulates in your brain just below the surface, clogging your thought processes and interfering with your focus.
Overwriting is a bit like doing morning pages. When you write 10 times more than you need, you’re getting everything out there. You’re seeing what you have to play with. You’re testing story lines or arguments for their staying power. You don’t want to keep any of it. You just want to get it all out there so you can look at it.
The difference between an experienced writer and a beginning writer is that the beginning writer wants to KEEP everything. She has spent ages honing and perfecting beloved scenes. The thought that they may not have a place in the final work is unbearable.
The experienced writer feels the same pain but makes the cut anyway. Affection for a line or scene isn’t enough of a reason to keep it. Just as none of us gets paid for being a nice person, so words don’t earn the right to stay in a piece because they’re cute. They must do the work or say goodbye.
If you have a hard time trimming down your work, then I’d suggest my #1 essential editing tool. It’s free, easy to use, and spares some of the pain of throwing away beloved material.
I spent half my time unwriting these days. Sometimes it’s hard, but I’ve gotten used to it. As much as I would like my reader to stay a while and linger over my clever turn of phrase, I don’t think many readers can be bothered. It’s a fast-paced world out there, and our words must keep up.