Decluttering your writing: easier with age?


Written materials are top candidates for decluttering

Not all writing is sacred. Oh no no no. If we kept every word we wrote, writers would all be living in a midden of our own making.

Most writing needs radical surgery before it works

When it comes to poems and plays and novels and other books, killing your darlings, as they say, is mandatory. Don’t take this literally: it just means ripping out whole verses and passages and chapters that you love in order to get the book into shape.

Books of poems seem to shed at least a third of their contents in the process of publication. Sometimes I’ve had to dump entire manuscripts. The good news: usually the book emerges in a new and better form. Humming, my favourite novel so far, was only half its original length when finally published.

Word purging is different from stuff purging in one respect

With stuff, matter, actual thingamebobs, we sometimes know within minutes or days when something is redundant. That garment you got from the op shop without thinking. That book you bought just to save embarrassment.  That gift you hated on sight but accepted out of courtesy. Words, by contrast, often need to lie fallow before you can spot the useless layabouts cluttering up your message and polluting your clarity.

Still, essentially, those surplus words just have to go.

Age and experience are major assets when editing

For most young writers and new writers, making those incisions is painful. They care, they care! Every word is a special needs word that needs cosseting and praise and preservation.

Far more cunning, old writers and experienced writers understand when and why they should hide a piece of personal writing away for a while. And if a deadline looms, they have rules of thumb that make easy to cut and control a manuscript very quickly.

Bonus when you switch from professional writing to personal or literary writing

Old writers get pretty smart at cutting to the chase.

Here’s a thrilling truth for journalists and corporate writers. One day you’ll finally have time for that book you’ve been longing to write. Could be that you lack confidence to switch to a completely new genre. You may feel you’re so stuck in your ways you are ruined as a literary writer.

Cheer up! Those years of brutal discipline as a journalist or copywriter or plain language trainer are worth their weight in anti-matter. Yes, you have heaps to learn, but surely that’s the fun part? And with your experience, you’ll find the crucial stage of editing a breeze. Cut cut cut, be bold, go go go!

Image from Internet Book Image Archive, “North Carolina Christian advocate [serial]” (1894)


12 thoughts on “Decluttering your writing: easier with age?

  1. Less is more. Hemingway cut to make the reader work harder …

  2. Interesting: cutting can also make reading easier.

  3. What great advice! I think being a prolific reader also helps us to become more prudent with our written words. Wading through entire passages of superfluous words makes us impatient with verbose writers—we just wish they would get to the point!

    1. That does sound like me! Especially after years training people in business, government and academia to write concisely and clearly.

  4. Aunt Beulah says:

    Such wisdom in this post and such difficulty in following your advice! I know the importance of the delete key and don’t hesitate to use it; but when it is a paragraph, a page, or an entire piece I have labored over, I mourn momentary, then I delete it and put it in my “amputated tidbits” file for future reference and possible rebirth in one way or another. Then I feel better.

    1. I adore the notion of your “amputated tidbits” file — though it is a tad ghoulish!

  5. Robyn Haynes says:

    I love the editing process. Like cleaning out the fridge. Not sure I’m always objective when it comes to my own work though .

    1. Me too. And usually if I hammer away long enough and often enough it comes tight.

      1. I think this is why I can almost never send anything to those themed calls for submissions. “Open through this month! We are looking for your poems on ______ (fill in the blank with the latest tragedy in the news). It is truly a rare thing for me to write something that comes out mostly formed, and those few times I have, it is because I had been writing it in my head already, and my brain is editing out the fluff as I put it to paper. The usual process means that I write something. If it comes to what feels like its proper conclusion, it gets set aside for a while, days or weeks or longer before I can come back to it with fresh eyes to see if how much was actually accomplished. There may sometimes be something that didn’t come across so I have to add, but instead, the editing is nearly always done with a knife.

        An editor that accepted one of my poems this spring asked if he could drop the last two lines. I looked back at it, and sure enough (the piece had been through many edits already), the poem ended two lines before my writing did. I was just explaining what I should have left to the reader by that point.

        Anyway, I’m just enjoying your thoughtful and refreshing writing this morning over coffee. Thanks for the kind compliment of a follow. Forgive me for making your community larger as I follow back.

      2. Hi David and welcome to this village. Your comments resonate with me. Yes, when I first got serious with WordPress, I was mystified by the culture of weekly or monthly writing challenges and themes. I am always short of time to write, but never of ideas! I now understand that the themed challenge does suit many people — providing fun, company, and the kind of exercise that sometimes results in a poem or story worth developing … and editing. Your editor-story is perfect. Amputating the last two lines of a poem is almost a writer’s rule of thumb, like chopping off the first chapter of a novel.

      3. Ah, yes, I have often thought that about blogging challenges, even the poetry ones, though I have taken a stab at the poem-a-day challenge more than once. I can benefit, I think, from a workshop-like challenge now and again, but for the most part, if I don’t have things to blog or write about, and need someone to promt me, then why in the world would I be blogging and writing in the first place?

        But you are right, and I would be stupid to belittle others just because they have goals that differ from mine. The good thing is, that people are writing. I remember a musician saying on Prairie Home Companion once, “Music is too important to be left to the ‘professionals.'” More people reading and writing has to be a good thing, right?

  6. Heavens yes! Let’s have both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. The quality of the product is not the issue: just what presses your buttons. Even now I am astonished at just how different we are from one another — and a good thing too. In fact I’m especially interested nowadays in helping people to get joy from writing, which usually starts with banning publication as a goal.

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