“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King, November 1973
Jack Hunter, author of The Blue Max, once told me if I loved a passage, if I was married to that passage, it probably meant it needed to be cut. Beginning writers – and some not-so-beginning writers – believe what they put on the page is sacred, and everything they know about a subject must be relayed to the reader.
Not so. The editing and revising of any piece of writing is where true art emerges and language takes on its own powerful life. Brevity keeps the reader’s attention, and it does not insult the reader by spoon-feeding them inconsequential words or words so obvious as to malign the reader’s intelligence.
At the start of my writing career, I entered a contest offered by the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Participants were to submit a 500-word essay on how the writings of Ms. Rawlings influenced their writing. I was a fan of the author who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling. Her book Cross Creek welcomed me to my new home in Florida more than thirty years ago. I eagerly began writing. And when I finished, the piece was 1,500 words. I needed to cut two-thirds of it.
I couldn’t imagine how I could express my appreciation and gratitude without every one of those 1,500 gold nuggets I’d splashed on the page. But I began the surgery: 1,200, 1,000. I still needed to cut the essay in half. That’s when the real work began. Every single word received my scrutiny. Finally, I hit 499 words. I reread it and guess what? The essay was much clearer and more concise. The judges agreed. I won First Place in July 2001. [Read the essay and see what you think.]
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings did indeed impact my life as a writer more than I could imagine at the time, and for that, I am forever indebted.
What has been your experience with editing your work, both fiction and nonfiction? Is it painful for you?