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51. Murder Your Darlings

51. Murder Your Darlings

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” -Leonardo Di Vinci

Learn to throw things away that aren’t working for you. If you find yourself falling so madly in love with your story that you couldn’t bare to remove a single hair, you’ve lost perspective. We talked about Purple Prose earlier, more important than simply avoiding unnecessary verbiage is to avoid the instinct to over describe.

James Kelly said this extraordinarily well in his 1995 article in Writer’s Digest,

Some writers like to fix problems by addition rather than subtraction. First they layer in just a little more complexity to develop a rounder Aunt Penelope. And then they expand the garage scene, so it will foreshadow the car chase. Last they have Biff’s lawyer explain the rules of evidence to his secretary after the trial so that slow readers will get the end. If these writers worry about wordiness at all, they might tighten a few lines here and there. Drop a “he said,” on page two. Major surgery is for beginners, right?

What they don’t realize is that muscular prose alone can’t lift a narrative. Any sentence, no matter how powerful, that serves no story purpose is just so many wasted words. Obviously, adjective pileups and unnecessary clauses and clunky diction must go. However, effective cutting involves more than line editing. You can also strike whole paragraphs — pages, even! For example, toss out that extra twist and the plot might come clear. Too much costume jewelry weighs characters down so they can hardly move. Rather than reconstruct the pyramids in five paragraphs (despite that week you spent cruising the Nile last summer), pick the two best and invite readers to supply some of their own building materials.

When you finish writing, set your work aside and come back to it later with an editors eye. Be willing to remove anything that doesn’t feel right to you. If you don’t like it, chances are good that your audience won’t either.

Today’s video is “The Editor—Where is the Story?” a short story about, well, editing.

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