Editing Ruthlessly

As you’ve been working on your draft, you’ve probably noticed several sections that clearly aren’t going to make it into the final version of your script. Those will be the easy pieces to get rid of. As you do so, it’s probably a good idea to have a separate working document open where you can dump those pieces in case they might become the kernel of another story you end up working on later. Even if these castaways don’t spark their own stories down the road, you might find that they end up informing your projects in another way. This cutting can be especially hard when you know the material is rich with evocative detail and emotional connections to your characters. There will probably be a part of you that wants to keep the material because it makes the characters more full and complex, while at the same time adding context to the rest of your story. You’re like right about those suspicions, but you have to remember just how compressed most digital stories need to be.

For instance, maybe you’re working on a story about a fishing trip with your mom and dad. For some reason, you wrote hundreds of words describing each of them, but most of that material isn’t going to fit into the story you’re working on. Maybe this particular story is about how your mother never really liked fishing at all, and you couldn’t understand why she always came along, but now you realize that it was because it was the only time you were willing to spend with her. Okay, it sounds like it has the makings of a pretty good story. But all that description you dedicated to proud look on your father’s face as he pulled away from the dock each time isn’t necessarily useful to this specific story. So you cut it and paste it into that separate document. And later, you find yourself working on a story about your father selling that boat because he realized it was the only thing he could think of to try to save your parents’ marriage.

Most often, the value of the process—for me—is to help make sense of something. Maybe something emotional. But it might also be something I’m just curious about.

Is there a connection between you, your mother, your father, the fishing trip, your parent’s marriage, and the selling of the boat? Yes, probably. But that is a lot to get smash into a single digital story. The more time you spend on your father’s decision to sell the boat, the less room there is to focus on why your mother was willing to suffer through the fishing trip to spend time with you. You’re going to end up having to make some tough choices. You’ll likely find yourself circling back to your own sense of what’s at stake in the story. What the story is really about. Or what you WANT the story to be about. I want to encourage you to cut everything that doesn’t move the story toward that climax or intensify the tension. It’s going to take some work on your part to stay focused on the heart of the story.

This same principle holds for even the small details you include. Maybe you end up describing your father’s fishing hat — the same one he’s been wearing on these trips for years. It’s the one your mother gave him for their first Christmas, even before you were born. He still wears it even though you and your brother bought him a new one for Father’s day last year. When he didn’t wear it on the first fishing trip this summer, you and your brother actually discussed hiding the old hat so that he’d have to wear the one you gave him. … All of this detail and background about the hat are interesting in their own right, but you have to ask yourself how pertinent they are to the heart of the story. It might feel like they make the story more interesting, but I would argue that they might also water it down. At this point in the process, it seems as though your story is about your mother’s willingness to suffer through fishing trips in order to spend time with you, and your not noticing. How was your hiding your father’s old fishing hat relevant to that center of the story? I would argue that it isn’t. But including it in your story will suggest to most readers that it has more significance than you intended. Including peripheral details like these will almost inevitably distract the audience, water down your story’s focus, and sap its intensity.

You should cut it. Even if you’ve cut enough of the rest of your draft that it still seems like you have room for it, cut it. Get your story as lean as possible. And then go back, read it aloud. Listen to yourself. Actually hear your story. Ask yourself again if anything is missing. If it is, add it. Then ask yourself what you might be able to add to intensify or clarify your story even more. It might seem like writing a lot is going to make your story better. It will. But being a ruthless editor of your own work is just as important.

What’s the most ruthless edit you’ve ever had to make to one of your own stories? Which of your stories (even if you didn’t finish it) spawned the most or best related stories?