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A self-edit should have you cutting what doesn’t add to your written work. Strive for simple, effective construction of phrases to achieve a better final product.

When I write, I often return to the poignant Antoine de Saint Exupéry quote: “It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

This is an important sentiment, as writers are sometimes seen as magicians summoning mountains of verbiage at will. And while it can indeed be easy to assume that being a prolific writer and being a great writer are one and the same, word count alone rarely correlates with quality. In my own work at least, the best writing is almost always that which communicates the most through the least amount of words.

This means my word counts shrink as I near a project’s final draft. When I first write, my goal is to get ideas on paper, and I throw in clauses and adjectives where they may not ultimately be needed. This is fine — but if left in, such clutter can make reading difficult and obscure key points. So revising becomes an act of pruning and erasing, readjusting and tightening.

Here are some examples, from this and other BookBaby posts I’ve written:

From this article:

…writers are often regarded as those who can summon mountains of words with the swirl of a pen or a flourish of fingers on a keyboard.

became

…writers are sometimes seen as magicians summoning mountains of verbiage at will.

The thought process
While I like the images in the “before” example, upon re-reading, they felt overly forced and fancy, rather than communicative. The “after” iteration shares the same idea but in a tighter, more streamlined manner.


From “Are You A Writer, Or Someone Who Dreams Of Being A Writer?“:

During our conversation, which focused on the creative process of crafting prose and poems alike, one statement from him reverberated particularly loudly with me: “Writers don’t dream of writing. Writers write”

became

During our conversation, which focused on crafting prose and poems alike, one statement reverberated loudly: “Writers don’t dream of writing. Writers write”

The thought process
I tightened this up by removing phrases that didn’t add nuance or meaning. I took out “on the creative process of” since it’s already clear what we’re talking about. I removed the phrases “from him” and “with me” since it’s also clear who is being referred to. To my eyes, the “after” sentence is less cluttered, easier to read, and more communicative.


From this article:

…as I near the final draft of a project

became

…as I near a project’s final draft.

The thought process
This is a tiny change, but an important one. There’s no substantive difference between this “before” and “after” — the latter just eliminates a prepositional phrase and a total of two words. Edits like these may seem negligible, but when made throughout an article — or a book — such tightening adds up, contributing significantly to a book’s flow and readability.


From “Are You A Writer, Or Someone Who Dreams Of Being A Writer?“:

There have been any number of times in my career when the act of writing has felt indescribably wonderful, and incredibly easy — as Seshadri describes, sometimes it’s like taking dictation.

became

At times, writing feels wonderfully easy — as Seshadri described, almost like taking dictation.

The thought process
First off, I didn’t like my original, grandiose claims in the “before” sentence, so I made a point of dialing back the superlatives. Second, the phrase “there have been any number of times in my career when the act of writing” is just too much. It’s clear from the rest of the article that I write a lot; there’s no need to dwell on the point. Finally, removing the word “it’s” in the final phrase creates subtly better flow and readability.


From this article:

…bloated word counts rarely have any direct correlation with quality

Became

…but word count alone rarely correlates with quality.

The thought process
“Bloated” felt overdramatic, extraneous, and distracting. The construction of “rarely have any direct correlation” was fine to write as I was trying to get the idea onto the page, but the tightened “after” version shares the same meaning, communicating it more directly.


Given the above examples, here are a few concrete tips to help you prune your own text and get out of the way of your own great writing:

Eliminate redundancy

Avoid cluttering your text by saying the same thing multiple times, just with different words.

Cut what doesn’t contribute

Search for words that don’t add substance, meaning, nuance, rhythm, or anything else. If you remove such words and your sentence still works (or works better), you made the right choice.

Go for simpler constructions

Using direct verbs and eliminating unnecessary prepositional phrases can often help your writing flow and communicate better.

Don’t fall in love

You may adore a certain metaphor you just artfully wove into your text — but does it add or distract? If the latter, put it in your proverbial writer’s trunk, save it for another project, and replace it with something that better serves your work.

Do you have any tips for, as Saint Exupéry would say, taking away to attain perfection? Tell us in the comments below.

 

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Related Posts
Are You A Writer, Or Someone Who Dreams Of Being A Writer?
Write By Accident, Refine By Design
The Key To Great Writing
My Five Favorite Books On Writing
Improve Your Writing: Become a Demanding Self-Editor

 

Michael Gallant

About Michael Gallant

Michael Gallant has written 12 posts in this blog.

Michael Gallant is a writer, musician, composer, producer, and entrepreneur. He lives in New York City. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant.

4 thoughts on “Cut and Cut (and Cut Again) — The Self-edit Credo

  1. Michael G. Michlein says:

    When I read about writing, I seek books with before-and-after examples. Though older and educated in most rules, I enjoy a short, to-the-point article as a refresher. It recharges my editing. Thank you.

  2. John Rachel says:

    “A self-edit should have you cutting what doesn’t add to your written work. Strive for simple, effective construction of phrases to achieve a better final product.”

    When you self-edit, cut what doesn’t add to your written work. Simple, effective phrase construction achieves a better final product.

    Please Paypal me $100 for this simple, effective edit of your opening paragraph.

  3. Lynn OBrien says:

    Great article and examples. The how and why of your edited to drafted versions make excellent sense. It is wisdom to use different words in places to achieve the same meaning, avoiding repetition. But not if it is needless repetition. Less is more. (Makes more sense, is less cluttered) Otherwise the foreground can go underground.

  4. Marilyn Carvin says:

    One has to be careful about the pace, rhythm and flow of words, though. Ruined my first chapter by cutting too much. (Including whole scenes.) My critique group liked the second chapter in which I had only cut a few redundancies. Historical fiction seems to require longer, smoother flowing sentences?

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