Nobody loves paring away the extraneous (the excessive, the repetitious, the clumsy, the clichéd, I could go on) more than an editor. As a writer I like trimming and cutting my work; as an editor I thrill to the task of trimming and cutting someone else’s work. So I enjoyed reading Pamela Erens’s NYT piece called “The Joys of Trimming.”
“I love editors who get rid of things,” she confides. Erens takes pleasure in losing overwritten scenes and dialogue, but she’s clear that when you cut one thing, you’re probably in for many more changes. Few cuts exist in vacuums. Every edit can lead to another…and another…and another. I also applaud her relaxed attitude toward what is often so difficult for writers: letting go of words that were hard to get down in the first place.
Words seem to take on extra importance when it was bloody murder to get them onto the page at all: You carved out time to write. You overcame your resistance to doing the work. You figured out what you wanted to say and how you should say it. You knocked yourself out finding precisely the right voice and tone. You polished those descriptions until they shone. And now you’re expected to take a machete to your prose?
The novel I’m working on is barely in a first-draft stage–and it’s 646 pages long. I know, I know, I know: it’s too long. I have to cut it. And I will cut it. Ms. Erens is right, of course: writing is better without the “limp adjective or superfluous sentence.” The point, she reminds us, is making a book that works.
That’s the nugget. You want to make a book (poem, essay, short story, memoir, novel) that works. So I would like to make a case for the other side: Don’t cut too much.
Beautiful writing is defined not as the least amount of writing, but as the right amount of writing. When I read, I want to fall into the work as if I were tumbling down the rabbit hole or being sucked into a parallel universe. I want to inhabit, with the author, a world–and it isn’t always possible to create a world with pared-to-the-bone sentences. Sometimes the reader needs more, not less.
It’s tricky. What’s enough and not too much or too little? That’s the art part. Erens invokes the well-known Samuel Johnson quote: “Read over your compositions and, wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” What? Why would you do that, unless it doesn’t belong there? The quote could use a rewrite: “…strike it out if it doesn’t work, it reads badly, it’s not actually ‘fine’ after all, you hate it on second reading, it ruins the paragraph…”
Same story with that injunction from William Faulkner warning you–writer– to “kill all your darlings.” That’s cute, and sometimes you do have to edit out today what seemed brilliant yesterday, but not always. Be careful. Be respectful, along with hard-nosed. Faulkner was. Faulkner didn’t kill all his darlings. Have you noticed how long his books are? The 1992 Modern Library hardcover edition of The Sound and the Fury: 368 pages.
I get worried around the Culture of Brevity, as if shorter is intrinsically better, and faster (even in arriving at the end of a sentence) is an indisputable virtue. Short and fast have their places (like at the dentist), but I’d rather read smart and original.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City IA
The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA
The Corner Bookstore, New York NY