The Cutting Room Floor

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Cut a good story anywhere, and it will bleed.”  ~ Anton Chekhov

I remember my first attempt at writing a young adult novel. It took nearly six months of my life to complete it. I immediately put it in a drawer to let it heal itself. When I read it in its entirety several weeks later, I was astonished to discover the book actually began about sixty pages into the piece.

It hurt me deeply to lop off all those lovely words and toss them into the trash. They represented hours of work. Today – some forty-plus years of writing later – I look forward to revising. It is almost a game for me now. I enjoy finding words I can delete and ways to make my work better and tighter.

Self-editing can be challenging, but we have guidelines to help us. For larger sections, we ask ourselves questions: Have I begun my story too early? Does this scene move the story forward? Is this section germane to my topic? Does the dialog accomplish its purpose?

Then we turn to small edits. It’s amazing how many words we can eliminate through minor reductions, often called line editing. A line edit focuses on how we use language to communicate our stories to our readers. 

Our goal in line editing is to cut the deadweight from our work. We look for abstractions and replace them with visual detail. We pump up our verbs and simplify our sentences. We delete unnecessary clauses and modifiers. We eliminate weak words.

Abstractions are those words that offer ideas or concepts but can remain wishy-washy in our reader’s mind. We want to use concrete terms in our writing. As an example, we may say that something is beautiful. What does the word beautifulmean to our reader? By offering visual detail or concrete words, we eliminate ambiguity.

We pump up verbs by eliminating the passive voice and using action verbs rather than weak “to be” verbs. Sol Stein in Stein on Writingconsiders action verbs, short sentences, and frequent paragraphing as “amphetamines” for speeding up pace and increasing the tempo of our work.

William Zinsser offers examples of unwanted clauses and modifiers in his book On Writing Well. He writes, “‘I might add,’ ‘It should be pointed out,’ ‘It is interesting to note that’ – how many sentences begin with these dreary clauses announcing what the writer is going to do next? If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting. Being told that something is interesting is the surest way of tempting the reader to find it dull; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, ‘This will interest you’? As for the inflated prepositions and conjunctions, they are the innumerable phrases like ‘with the possible exception of’ (except), ‘due to the fact that’ (because), ‘he totally lacked the ability to’ (he couldn’t), ‘until such time as’ (until), ‘for the purpose of’ (for).”

It requires a keen eye to recognize weak words that weigh our story down and slow our readers. As an example, we need to watch for qualifiers and delete them immediately. Editor Taylor Graham writes, “The most superfluous and often-used words are: really,very,just, and seem.” Strunk and White in The Elements of Styleadd ratherlittle, and prettyto the weak word list. They admonish our using these dreaded qualifiers, saying, “these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

If you’re stuck in your revision efforts, we have an online tool available to us for line editing. The Expresso app is free and may help you examine your words more efficiently. Go to https://www.expresso-app.organd cut and paste the text in question. The program analyzes the number of filler words, weak verbs, vague determiners, clause-heavy sentences, cluster nouns, and verb modifiers. It even offers synonyms and determines rare word usage. While it may be a bit over the top in its suggestions, the app does offer some interesting approaches to revising our work.

When a story is tightly written, it becomes fast-paced and entertaining for our readers. But what about all those lovely words left on our cutting room floor? We can take solace in the words of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.”