Knowing When to Cut

Ever heard the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” used by someone who wanted to sound more profound than they are?

Well, I’m gonna use it, but point something out that often gets overlooked.

As a writer, you will not have magical flashes of intuition and genius that put a dozen or so words into your head that make everything go perfectly. Inspiration strikes, sure, but it’s like lightning: you can’t make a living off of it.

So, how do you make yourself smarter than you are?

Cutting.

Emphasis is key.

Selective use of words provides emphasis.

Knowing when to cut parts out of a piece of writing, and when to break pieces apart, is critical.

But the first is something most people struggle with.

The temptation for writers is to unburden themselves of everything we accrue when working on a text. Every colorful image, descriptive metaphor, emphatic analogy, and detail gets blotted down on the page until they run together. But that doesn’t work well. It hits the cognitive limitations of readers quickly, and you lose the ability to emphasize effectively.

Think of it this way: in a book, you probably have one or two key points for every chapter. Every chapter builds from a dozen or so points, and most of those points will be made with smaller pieces. This essay has one point: learn to cut. Then it gets split down further and further into pieces of supporting details, (hopefully) relevant anecdotes, and turns of phrase.

This applies to both fiction and non-fiction writing; you’re just allowed to be more obvious in your organization with non-fiction.

If your dissertation on economics is twelve chapters long, that’s twelve to twenty-four things for people to learn. If your novel is seventy chapters, that’s seventy things for people to focus on and take away from. If one chapter is twenty words long, that’s a very clear and direct point. If it’s twenty pages long, the reader is doing a lot of work to get that point.

I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash this morning. It’s got seventy-some chapters (hence the example above) spread across 480 pages, but it’s one big over-the-top grind-fest. It’s cyberpunk in the best sense: vivid, gritty, and fast-paced.

And it’s mercilessly cut down while maintaining a generous amount of exposition.

How?

Because the exposition carries emotion, meaning, context. It builds to the central point of just how wretched the world of Snow Crash is, drawing parallels between the real and the absurd.

When Stephenson uses exposition, he doesn’t waste any. Some of it might be gratuitous, depending on your tolerance for the devices Stephenson employs (at one point he has an academic citation in the work, and there’s repetition to help emphasize potentially difficult elements of things that may not be familiar to lay readers), but it’s all going to explain something.

There’s very little that doesn’t lead into the point of how dysfunctional the future is, and how important it is that the protagonists succeed. The details that at first seem extraneous are clues to how things unfold later.

And this is a good model for cutting down texts.

If it doesn’t relate to your overarching idea, cut it.

If it duplicates something seen elsewhere, cut it.

This doesn’t mean that the cut writing is always bad–it might deserve to live another life somewhere else–but that it has no place in the current text you’re writing.

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