Try This Exercise … if You Dare

One of my college professors once imparted this bit of wisdom to our workshop:

“Look closely at what you’ve just written. Now go through and circle everything in it that you love, every gorgeous description, every turn of phrase—and delete it.”

There are days when I think this is the best advice I’ve ever gotten (usually when my writing is not going well). And there are days when I think it’s the worst (usually when I’m particularly in love with myself).

I urge you to give it a try and see what happens. It’s a fun experiment, and if you’re suffering from a case of wordiness, it can be very grounding and helpful. But if the professor’s approach is a little too harsh for you this Tuesday morning, then I’ll leave you with the very wise words of a former Editor-in-Chief of mine:

“Every word should carry its own weight.”

When you get right down to it, both statements are really about checking your ego at the door when you write.  It’s about bringing a sense of honesty to your writing, about doing what’s best for the story.

Write well!

  1. Editing and deleting as we speak. I’ve actually found Twitter has helped me considerably in seeing what words I don’t need, and the more I delete extra words in my ms, the easier it is to not write them in the first place.


  2. You scared me to death. I hope it doesn’t mean anything that I was not passionately attached to any particular sentences in my manuscript … except maybe: “Gloom reigns, unabated.” That one just spoke to me — I would hate to leave it out in the cold. As for Twitter …yeah, can you imagine our future books filled with misspellings and those *(#*(*# acronyms? No thank you. Finally, deleting is fantastically healthy, but you can still write like Dickens. Well, I can’t…but you know what I mean.


  3. Calista, I’m okay with Twitter’s restrictiveness. I simply say the same thing 5 times over, but differently. In short sentences. So, really, I’ve said most of what I want to say by the time I hit the limit. Because I repeat myself. A lot.



  4. I discovered in the process of rewrites and edits with friends that I use certain words to a shameful degree. “A little”, “So”, “Pretty”, “that”, and several others have hit my “find” list in word. Completing a manuscript usually is followed by the writer’s version of the walk of shame as I do a search for those words. I’ve also realized I use the word “actually” to an unhealthy degree just from hearing it from both my eight year old and six year old in nearly every sentence they utter. Usually… it makes no sense in context either, but I hope they didn’t learn that from me… actually.

    Outside of these dredge words that clutter things up, I’ll be honest, I hate cutting things out. I think I might just be in love with myself. Perhaps that’s why I don’t appreciate criticism as much as those who give it feel like I should.


  5. Wendy, I have a term that I use for those pet words and phrases that we all rely upon: “clipart.” Used to drive a Certain Author crazy when I would write in the margins, “This is [Name Redacted] clipart.”

    But he knew I was on to something, and he’d rethink every instance.

    Honestly, though, cutting text can be difficult. But it can also be glorious. There is something that happens when you cut away pretty stuff that obscures what you’re after. And while the new text may be missing those pretty phrases you so labored over, it’s also clean, unobtrusive, and spot-on in terms of conveying your intent.


  6. […] on Upstart Crow’s blog, today’s post discusses ways to trim up the fat–cut the excess, flowery prose (my words, not […]


  7. I had to cut my MS from 150k words to 81k. LOTS of gorgeous (in my own mind) sentences had to be cut. And my story is much more beautiful because of it.


  8. In my first two novels, I had enough back story to fill Yankee Stadium. Slicing and dicing it out was painful yet freeing. I also follow Janet Reid’s advice and do a ‘that-ectomy’ on my work. There are many words we overuse when writing and talking. In writing they prove redundant and slow a story down.

    Checking your ego at the door, being authentic, and doing what’s best for the story is advice we writers need to keep in the forefront. Thanks for this important post, Danielle. I’m thrilled you, Michael and Chris have created an accessible, down to earth environment to share your expertise and elicit feedback from your readers. You have something special here, and it is greatly appreciated;-)


  9. I have done this on several manuscripts and I can truthfully say it has improved my work. Usually, my favorite phrases turn out to be me trying to wax eloquent, and it tends to be dropped into my novel in places where I’ve forgotten that I’m writing for a YA, not myself. One tip I ran across somewhere, which has made this exercise much less painful, is to keep a file for each manuscript titled ‘For possible inclusion later’. I cut/paste all those little gems into that document and it makes me feel so much better about deleting them from my real work because, hey, they aren’t really gone, right? Funny thing is, I haven’t once opened the file again to include anything back in my manuscript. I’m guessing that’s because it didn’t belong there to begin with. It’s a comfort to know I could add it back if I wanted to. I just don’t want to.


  10. I wrote a short story for my Writers Group anthology. It came out in a style so unlike my typical voice that it was like editing another writer’s work. I was able to unemotionally and unmercifully slash every sentence and word that I felt wasn’t helping to drive the story. When I was done I was stunned by how much it had improved. I learned an important lesson that day.


  11. I unfortunately can’t cut much. I write too tight and the poetic side to my writing doesn’t do anything to ease the tightness. It means some of my words do two things instead of one.

    I see where twitter would help this. Poetry or flash fiction “drabbles” of exactly one hundred words can help as well, which is the route I took.


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