a basic rule of thumb: sharpen your knives

For me, at least, this rule works at almost every level: if something isn’t working, prune it.

If a sentence doesn’t read well, take off any preposition phrases at the end. If that doesn’t help, strip every word out of the sentence that you can possibly do without, and then start putting things back, one at a time, until you get back a sense of balance.

Paragraphs are odd things with a rhythm and reason all their own. In fact, multiple rhythms. Well structured paragraphs move the reader along a smooth path; choppy paragraphs don’t. (Sometimes you need choppy, for stylistic reasons; I’m not talking about that here.) The flow of multiple paragraphs on the page is also important. If the scene isn’t feeling balanced, print it out. Hold it up at arm’s length and look. Lots of big, blocky paragraphs? A whole squadron of short, choppy paragraphs? these things should tell you something. Of course, a nice balance will help the scene move, but it’s not a guarantee that the story will work.

Because sometimes stories don’t work. More often than not, something is off. Out of balance, off kilter. This is where the real pruning comes in.

I have heard it said that the first thing you have to do with any manuscript is chop off the first page or so. Oddly enough, it’s true sometimes. The writer starts writing, but the story takes a while to click into being. This happened to me with Homestead. The only major edit was that I cut the first two scenes in the first story, and the whole thing immediately took on a new energy.

It’s often true that the writer can’t let the story go and so it drags on. I stop and ask myself if I need the last paragraph in the chapter I just wrote, and about half the time the answer is that I don’t.

Someplace along the line, many of us got the idea that flowery constructions and long descriptions make good prose. And sometimes they do, but more often they just get in the way.

When I’ve stuck too many characters in a scene, it sometimes comes to a grinding halt and will only start up again as I toss people out of the room. Why exactly Peter is sitting there? No good reason: out with him. Stripping extraneous characters from the scene can give it — and the writer — a tremendous boost of energy.

Finally, this thought: some people hate to cut anything at all, because every word is written in blood. I can hear my students wailing still: but i worked on that opening scene for HOURS. Sometimes you have to let things go, no matter how hard won they were to start with. If it kills you to do it, put all the little snippets into a file someplace and give it a name you’ll remember. You can have a look at your snippets file when you’re trying to get a sense of where to go next, and sometimes you’ll find the answer there.

Sometimes I pick up a novel and just look at the way the sentences and paragraphs are structured. It’s an interesting exercise and quite useful.

6 Replies to “a basic rule of thumb: sharpen your knives”

  1. Thank you for the tip, I always have problems with trying to cram too much detail in. Cutting is hard.

    You know the first time you pluck your eyebrows and one’s thicker than the other so you try to even things out and overcompensate? Then one’s too thin and finally you end up looking like an alien because you didn’t know where to stop?

    Its sorta like that.

  2. Good advice, especially about the clunky sentences. I like the idea of stripping the sentence bare, then adding back.

    My Southernisms get in my way. A sentence will sound perfectly normal to me, but the Queen’s English just got a black eye. I have to root around for them, then hope my beta readers, who are not from these here parts, will catch the rest.

    Actually, I don’t mind cutting too much. I love to see my story getting a face lift. A snip here, a tuck there. Wah-lah, a tighter tale.

    Thanks, Rosina, for the tips.

  3. This is all fantastic advice. You are the second person who has recommended printing out a chapter to get a visual of how balanced the paragraphs and scenes are and it is very helpful. I recently did another exercise where we highlighted (Word has a highlighting feature that makes this easy) what was “in scene” and what was narrative summary in two different colors to get a visual of how they balanced out. Thanks again for this great, practical information.

  4. I am a Language Arts teacher. I like to tell my students when they write they need to always ask themselves,”Do I need this information in my story?” For students of all ages it is hard to take things out, to edit. I think I will try your exercise of stripping the words from sentences that are not needed and then slowly add some words back. I think it will make the writing tighter and more directed.

    Did you ever notice that some writers use the same descriprive words and phrases over and over? Young writers, (school age) do that as well. How do you find descriptive words to move the story along, but do not become overused?

  5. Cecilia —

    As for writers always reaching for the same words or phrases, yes, I think everybody has to work hard to stop themselves from doing so. I know my own weaknesses and so I try to catch them by doing a manuscript wide search; if the term or description comes up more than once, I’ll have a closer look. This is not a term I use, but it would be an example of something a writer might search for repetitions: bright blue eyes.

    Your last question is really interesting. I’m going to pull it out and answer it in a post later today or tomorrow.

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