Chop Off Whatever You Don’t Need
by James Thayer
Asked how he could possibly create such magnificent sculptures,
Francois-Auguste Rodin replied, “I choose a block of marble and chop
off whatever I don’t need.”
Perhaps writers could adopt Rodin’s technique: take a dictionary,
edit out all the unneeded words, and there’s our novel.
Here’s a first draft:
name is Robert? How do you do? Let me introduce myself. I’m
usually called Izzy, though I don’t much like the name. Glad to
Robert? How are you? I go by Izzy, my dumb
nickname. Happy to meet you.
Robert? I’m Izzy. How’re you?
Call me Ishmael.
it’s not that simple.
Our goal is to write a
horror novel so scary the reader can’t leave the room for an hour
after she finishes it, or a romance novel that leaves the reader
wet-cheeked with joy, or a thriller where the reader bites through
his tongue with tension. Editing will help us create such a novel.
Albert Zuckerman says, “The point is that the likelihood of your
novel being terrific in every respect the first time you set it down
is from slight to nonexistent.”
But how much editing is needed? Do we go over the story lightly, or
do we spend months tearing it apart? A glimpse of how famous
writers edit their own works may offer clues. What do they think
about editing their own works? How do they go about it?
For some, editing is hard:
said, “Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have
written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them
the other way around.” And John Fowles said that “During the
revision period I try to keep some sort of discipline. I make
myself revise whether I feel like it or not; in some ways, the more
disinclined and dyspeptic one feels, the better—one is harsher with
oneself. All the best cutting is done when one is sick of the
For others, it’s easy:
John Saul says, “I no longer
even read my manuscript before I send it to the editor.” Dick
Francis and Harold Robbins wrote their novels, then sent them in
without going through them again. After writing poetry, prose came
easily to C.S. Lewis because “It’s such fun after sweating over
verse, like freewheeling.“ He worked quickly, and “managed to write
almost everything in one draft, and never made more than minimal
revisions,” according to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter.
writers slap the words onto the page and edit heavily later, while
others are more deliberate as they write, then need to do less
Mary Karr, author of The Liar’s Club and Cherry, said:
I’m a very bad writer,’ she says with a straight face. ‘My first
drafts are always like, “I am sad. Then I went to the store. Then
I came home and went to sleep." She smiles, waits a beat and then
dumps the perfectly timed kicker: "But I’m a pretty good rewriter.”
John Steinbeck agreed. “Write as freely and as rapidly as possible
and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until
the whole thing is down.”
Here is how David Morrell does
first draft, I try to write quickly, to go with the flow. I reread
the previous day’s work at the start of the new workday. I bring
myself up to speed in the narrative. I edit for grammar and
clarity. But I keep moving. I don’t want to stifle the story. If
I have doubts about whether to put something in, I err on the side
of excess and include it.
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
second draft, I look at the shapeless mess I’ve created. I trim and
focus, often eliminating one-third of the manuscript, clarifying the
then I reread this second draft and realize that I’ve been too
stringent, that I’ve cut too much and excised the life from the
narrative. In my third draft, I put material back in and give the
narrative some breathing room. It’s this draft that I send to my
agent and my editor.
Sidney Sheldon completely rewrote each of his novels a
dozen times, and Saul Bellow would do up to ten rewrites. Jean Auel
rewrote The Clan of the Cave Bear four times before she was
satisfied. E.B. White wrote the first page of Charlotte’s Web
Ronald Dahl, author
of James and the Giant Peach and Matilda, once wrote
that he “liked to ‘cut and crystallize’ each story until it could be
cut and crystallized no more.” T.S Eliot’s biographer Peter Ackroyd
says Eliot “was never happy with anything he had just completed.”
Stephen Greenblatt concludes that while words came easily to
Shakespeare, “There is powerful evidence that he extensively revised
his own work.”
Others are painstaking
while writing, and so edit less.
Andre Dubus said, “I
write slowly, and I try to edit as much as I can while I’m writing.
The next day, I’ll read from the beginning, so I’m doing it all over
again. I don’t read it when I’m finished that day. I put it aside
and don’t think about it until the next day.”
Never ending editing:
Some writers never stop editing their own works. Edgar Allan Poe
revised his own work, “part of a continuous lifelong effort to
rework and improve what he considered his best prose and verse,”
says his biographer Kenneth Silverman.
Although J.R.R. Tolkien wrote
quickly he “took endless pains over revision and regarded it as a
continuing process that was not necessarily complete when the book
was published,” according to Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s
Stephen King recommends
writers put some time between finishing the novel and beginning the
How long you let your book
rest—sort of like bread dough between kneadings—is entirely up to
you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks [between
finishing it and beginning editing]. During this time your
manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, ageing and—one
hopes—mellowing. . . .
If you’ve never done it
before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff
to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll
recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the
stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like
reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is
the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to
kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.
When to stop editing.
When have we done enough editing of our story? Here are tips
regarding when to stop:
1. When the novel is getting bigger, not smaller. Essayist John
Derbyshire wrote of his new book: “I tried to trim the thing down:
By some odd, and I think hitherto unknown, physical effect no doubt
rooted in the unfathomable paradoxes of quantum electrodynamics, the
more I tried to make it smaller, the bigger it got.”
2. When we are adjusting minutia. Novelist Carl Hiaasen said,
“Tinkering is a way of stalling.”
3. When we have stopped making editorial changes, and are just
4. When we are sick of it. John Fowles said the best cutting is
done when the writer is sick of writing. The writer will probably
get sick of the manuscript again, at a later date, during the
editing. When you are sick of editing, it’s probably time to dust
your hands, and quit.
5. When it is perfect. But it will never be. So feel free to stop
your editing before then..
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing