Sharpening Our Knives

Being a food writer, in addition to a fiction writer, I often use culinary terms as analogies for fiction writing.

Obviously, today is no exception. We do it all the time anyway, when we say things like “honing our skills” or “trimming the fat” off a story.

Today I encourage you to sharpen your knives. By that, I mean we need to be ruthless when cutting away unnecessary material from our work.sharpen-785425_960_720

As writers, we tend to say a lot. That’s what we do. We tell stories. And we can easily lose control and go on and on. And that’s okay. At first. It’s actually good to just let loose and let all your thoughts come out of your head and spill onto the page. You never know what nuggets of gold you will find or threads that will be important to the fabric of your story.

But then it’s time to sharpen the knife and start slicing. Things that are unimportant, that merely weigh a story down, can be disastrous, especially in a short story. Everything should be there for a reason, even if the reason isn’t immediately apparent. Every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be there for a reason. Does it help with characterization? Does it make the setting more vivid? Does it provide a clue into the character’s motives for doing something later on? Is it an opportunity to organically provide some background to the story or the characters?

Photo credit: Dan Patterson
Photo credit: Dan Patterson

As wordsmiths, we love to talk. We love to hear our own voices. Not verbally but on the page. In words. So it’s not always easy to know where and when to cut. That’s why it’s important to have other people read your work. Others can read what you’ve written with an objective eye and say, “I don’t get this. I don’t understand why this is here. I’m not following this scene—why is she doing this?”

My fellow Penhead, JM Levinton, told me—in no uncertain terms—that she’d like to kill me sometimes when I use unnecessary words. Specifically, she said I use the words “down” and “up” too much. As in, “she sat down” and “she stood up.” She’s right. “Down” and “up” are unnecessary there. It is enough to simply say, “she sat” and “she stood.”

When you’re an editor, as well as a writer, a funny thing happens (at least to me). When I’m editing something and catch things like the use of extraneous words, I start to wonder about my own writing. Do I do that too? I can have a pretty sharp knife when editing (although, not as sharp as JM’s!) but I find myself sharpening it more and more as I edit more and more. This spills over onto my own work, and I become more ruthless. I’m more aware of my word choices (although, I sometimes take it to an extreme out of writer’s paranoia).

Having said that, it’s always hard editing yourself, no matter what. But one thing is true—if you can cut out words and still say what you want to say clearly, then do it. Less is more. Sharpen that blade and have no fear. You really won’t miss what you’ve hacked off.

And for some great examples of unnecessary verbiage, visit Rebecca Berto’s site.

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