Chop Off Whatever You Don’t Need

by James Thayer

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

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:   

Your 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 meet you. 

Second draft:     

Robert?  How are you?  I go by Izzy, my dumb nickname.  Happy to meet you.

Third draft:   

Robert?  I’m Izzy.  How’re you? 

Final draft:   

Call me Ishmael. 

Well, 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:   Agatha Cristie 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 writing.’” 

For others, it’s easy:  Horror novelist 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.   

Heavy editing:  Some writers slap the words onto the page and edit heavily later, while others are more deliberate as they write, then need to do less editing later.  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 it: 

In my 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. 

In my second draft, I look at the shapeless mess I’ve created.  I trim and focus, often eliminating one-third of the manuscript, clarifying the book’s structure. 

But 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 thirty times.  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.”   

Light editing:  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 biographer. 

Time gap:  Stephen King recommends writers put some time between finishing the novel and beginning the editing. 

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 reading.  

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..                

James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (

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