I decided to take a look at bits of writing advice and examine what they mean to me as a writer.
Rather than jump off with the usual “Write what you know” stuff – though I’ll get to that later – I started with:
“Write without Fear. Edit without Mercy.”
I tackled the first part of that, last week, and that was all about getting the story out of your head, because you can’t edit something you haven’t written yet.
But now we’ve got it written, so I’m here to talk about what Editing without Mercy means to me.
Editing without Mercy, essentially, means that if something doesn’t fit in the story – no matter what it is – it must go.
That thing can be a paragraph, or a scene. It can be something larger like a chapter, or a couple of chapters.
It can be a character – or a point of view.
And right now, you might be thinking, “Hold on a minute. I put a heck of a lot of work – a lot of thought into this. This is my Story.” Yes, it is your story, but ultimately, the story is the boss and if something doesn’t work for the story, it can’t stay.
And that can be hard to come to grips with. Even if you’re only considering the blunt amount of work it will take to smooth over the spots where that thing used to be. But there’s more to it than that. Sometimes those bits will be things that you’re attached to. Things that you thought were clever. Things that were awesome.
But you must cast a merciless eye upon them, because if they aren’t helping your story, they’re ultimately hurting it.
And you don’t want that. You want your story to be the best that it can be when you send it out into the world. You want to give it the best possible chance to find a home in some reader’s heart.
And that requires the will to do what must be done:
Edit Without Mercy.
Note that this doesn’t mean that you’re throwing anything away. You don’t throw anything away, do you?
When you remove something, it’s not the end. It doesn’t mean that bit wasn’t, in fact, awesome or clever, all it means is that it doesn’t fit in that particular story – but it might fit somewhere else.
Now I’d like to switch focus from removing things to another part of Editing Without Mercy:
Leaving things in. Adding to them.
Editing isn’t just an exercise in deletion. Part of Editing without Mercy is leaving in the stuff that makes you uncomfortable, the stuff that scares you. There may be elements of the work that have sharp edges and you might feel tempted to smooth out where, in fact, you might need to explore even further. Remember: The story is the boss, and everything you’re doing while editing is in service to the story. This links back to Writing without Fear. You’ve gotten it down, but were you holding back somewhere? Now is the time to take a closer look, with as much of as dispassionate eye as you can manage.
Keep your mind on the ultimate goal: To produce the best story you can – and when you’re done?
Stop. Don’t tinker with it. It’s possible to sand and smooth a piece of wood to the point where you’ve worn so much away that you’ve made a weak spot, or a hole (Yes, that’s an extreme example, but I think the analogy holds). Work on your story until it’s done, then stop. Move on.
That too is a part of Editing Without Mercy.
Thanks for reading.
Be safe out there. Be Excellent to Each other.
I’ll see you on Thursday.
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