The Joy of Cutting Your Own Words – Editing

Woman Writing

A novelist writes two stories, one for himself, and one for his readers. The story he writes for himself can be as long and as loose and as saturated with details as his time and disposition allows him to make it. But the one he writes for his readers needs to be concise, compact, and sprinkled only with the significant details.

It’s hard to cut words you’ve written with love, especially when they are not that bad. It’s easier to raise your children than it is to kill them, hence overpopulation. But it’s necessary. Cutting the words I mean.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.  – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Oliver Colors’ biography reached 128,000 words at one point. Now it’s only 87,500 words and it’s shrinking. It will likely end up under 80,000 words. And after I will send it to an editor it will probably end up under 75,000 words.

At first it was hard backspacing even adjectives. But once I got in the habit of doing it I came to enjoy cutting phrases, sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters. Now each time I cut something I feel I reinforce the words that remain. The mason, after he finishes the building, removes the scaffolding…

I cut the parts that are the least genuine, the ones written with the least enthusiasm, or in haste. And also those that just came out of the blue and settled on the page.

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything. – Voltaire

The camelopardic crocophant is a good example. Somehow the ponderous creature found its way into Oliver Colors’ biography, and it refused to leave. But my editing pen has a prickly point, and I have poked with it at the beast until it went away. And then I sighed relieved. A moonbeamed painter might be a capital idea, but a camelopardic crocophant is just a literary disaster…


Do you enjoy editing your writing?

45 thoughts on “The Joy of Cutting Your Own Words – Editing

  1. I find the opposite to be true when I edit, oddly enough. When I write my first draft I lay out the skeleton with sparse words and simply “what happened”. when i edit I go back and add the flesh, the descriptions, metaphors, and transitions. The skin is last, the polished writing, the poetry. So a 15 page chapter can become 20 through my editing.

    Thought you’d like to hear the contrast. Nice post.

  2. Thanks for the post, hat-headed boy (and for the contrast, dragonstories84). I am FAR TOO WORDY for both my and my readers’ good. Nice to know I’m not alone. I especially like the idea that the words which remain take on added significance when those around them are trimmed.

  3. I do enjoy editing my writing. The original inspiration, when I first get my words on paper, is always exciting. But the polishing, the refining, the editing is so rewarding–I think that actually might be my favorite part: knowing I’ve said exactly what I want to say, in exactly the most perfect way I could’ve said it. It’s really satisfying. And empowering!

  4. actually I do enjoy editing myself, but only after enough time has passed after writing the pages, so that I’ve gained some perspective, otherwise it really hurts.. 😉

  5. I feel the same in some ways. I love to edit my writing. And it’s hard to take some things out, but then again, I love when I read a book that does not explain EVERYTHING but leaves some of it up to me and makes room for MY imagination.

  6. It is very true! I love the Voltaire quote. Editing is much like a drum beat, your story or song becomes much more rhythmic because of the pauses, silences, because of what is not being said. I suppose that is the beauty of a novel versus a film: you get to have an input with your imagination in a novel, the author has left half the canvas blank, so that you may project what ever feeling and whatever interpretation you like on to it.

  7. Hi I have read several of your blogs and just finally plucked up the courage to say something. I really like the story you weave about the writing process. You add a romantic flare to the writing world that is always hinted at but rarely spoken. I thoroughly enjoy your posts thank you for sharing.

  8. I do get attached to my words they are exhausting to create, I find myself painfully trying to make them fit like the good parent but in the end I do concede,that my children need to be I don’t like to think of it as destroying but more like put on a diet. I think I’m too descriptive in my writing its like an illness I’m trying with great difficulty to self medicate by writing thinly without cluttering, bones aren’t very attractive without some flesh I just have to say away from the fat.

  9. I work with novices all the time in coaching and running edits on their work. The best email I’ve gotten in a while was one saying ‘After all you showed me, I took the first four chapters of my next book and cut nearly 8,000 words’. It can be done!

  10. Nice post, young boy with a hat. Might I add my comment:
    I do a double edit. The first draft is always dashed off, more a script with stage directions. Hence Edit 1 (which might take several passes) is to light the scenes, give atmosphere, set the scenes, place historically and geographically – the casting is already done, yet costumes need tweaking (or actual designing). All of which has usually trebled the word-count. With Edit 2, out comes the scissors. I used to hate that, so destructive. Yet now I find there is satisfaction in cutting my work and rearranging so only the essentials of story are left. Yes, I do tend to think in terms of film; that is the way I write.

  11. The best advice I ever got about writing was to “write with fire and cut with ice”…and that’s exactly what I started doing especially when editing. I know it’s sometimes hard to let go of something you thought was good, but the bottom line is: if it’s not working, then cut it.

  12. I agree with you, my friend. We always like to write for us rather than others. I have my experience. I thought I have something about me to write for others. I wrote it twice to some extent. But, I understood it is too much for others. But I will write it again. Your post encouraged me. Thanks!

  13. I edit a piece at least five times because I need to. I begin editing by re-writing with fountain pen on paper; then I type what remains and print double-spaced. At that point I review tense, active/passive voice, modifiers, definitions, spelling, the overall tone of the piece and rhythm. I make sure each word contributes meaning, movement and life. And in the end, like a proud father, my creation has clearness, personal force and beauty. When I read it aloud that last time and feel the life flowing through the piece, I know it’s done. That moment of joy is worth all the work. Thank you for posting such an interesting topic.

  14. I wish I could read the authors version, the one that has no parts, written from the heart, cut out.

    I’m also sure that you made good choices and the final result will be splendid.

    I don’t enjoy editing. First, I rarely edit. Second, when I do, I feel I’m changing the whole meaning and I’m changing it for worse…
    But I like to have edited. I’m always more happy with the edited version than the original.

  15. I actually prefer editing to writing… Does that make me odd? But most importantly, I need to be in the right frame of mind to do both a first draft and then later to edit. I can’t force words if they aren’t flowing and I can’t edit wisely until I know exactly what I’m trying to say…

  16. Me too, Lucas and kznia. Though someone I read recently likened editing-as-you-write to sculpting, so I’ve felt happier about this habit since. But Boy with a hat this is a great post. Ruthless cutting simply has to be done. It lightens the load; lets the air and light in.

  17. I do enjoy editing. Very much. “Kill your darlings.” When there’s nothing left to take away, things flow. It’s beautiful.

  18. Love editing for other people. Hate editing my own writing. Hence over population… 😉 (Hilarious that you felt the need to make that distinction, you know, just in case we weren’t sure what you were talking about.) The image of the scaffolding coming down after the building was complete did resonate with me… Perhaps I will have better luck with my own editing if I think of it in those terms.

  19. Camelopardic Crocophant….. you may have avoided a literary disaster by cutting that wonderful sounding fantastical creature out of your work, but you’ve only made me curioser as to the nature of that intriguing beast! The thought that I wouldn’t get to know it when I finally get to read the story of your moonbeamed painter, only makes it more elusive…..

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