Writer vs Self: Chopping Out Prose

No matter what stage of your writing career you find yourself, one of the hardest lessons to learn is how to cut prose from your stories. Some writers always struggle with it, while others find ways that make them more comfortable with the process – saving chopped writing as cut scenes, alternate endings, or even blooper reels, for instance. Every writer, no matter how proficient they are, will encounter the necessity for cutting prose – either a little or a lot – from every story they ever write.

Yes, even writers who use outlines.

It’s important to be able to make cuts when they’re needed, but it’s also important to recognize why it can be a difficult, almost impossible, hurdle to surmount. The most common reason that I’ve encountered – and often is my resistance about chopping my own writing – is that what you wrote captured something that you’re not certain you can replicate. Those words flowed from your fingers and onto the page and represent all of the things you and your characters were thinking and feeling in that moment, and cutting it somehow feels like you’d be replacing it with something less meaningful.

What writers – including myself – need to learn is that readers can’t tell the difference between prose that was written in a flight of inspiration versus prose that an author wrote while wanting to pull their hair out (although there might be quality differences that can be compensated for during edits). Readers rely on the main character (or characters) to inform their own feelings about the stories they read. There’s nothing that will tip them off in any given selection of words as to whether or not an author was sad, tired, lonely, excited, or happy while they were writing, and therefore it won’t factor into their enjoyment of the story.

I’ve also heard frustration expressed over knowing how many hours were spent writing a certain scene, only to have to face throwing that away. It can feel as though those hours are being thrown away, and can make it very difficult to let go of prose that really has no business staying in the story. Again, the reader won’t know about how many hours you spent at a desk, sneaking in writing sessions between cups of coffee in lieu of the sleep you should have been getting. All they will know is the story as a whole. And those hours you spent writing were far from wasted – it’s commonly accepted that in order to master a craft a person needs to spend 10,000 hours working at it. You still learned things during the time spent writing, and that’s something that can’t be thrown away.

Every writer needs to be ale to free themselves from old prose, or they won’t get very far in the editing process. No matter how many people read it and offer constructive feedback, at the end of the day the author is the only person who can tell the story. It is up to them to be able to make decisions about the suggestions they receive, and to then enact the changes they decide on. This is one of the reasons why there are so many tips and tricks for how to gain distance from your own stories before you begin editing. (One I’ve only recently heard of is, in addition to printing your manuscript out, to print it in a different font.) Even if you are one of those writers who will always struggle with the necessity of chopping prose, making peace with the need to do it could very well be the most important skill you learn.

Do you dread the idea of needing to chop out prose? Have you developed any strategies for helping yourself cut paragraphs or scenes, or even whole chapters? What has made you consider chopping out prose in the past? Do you rely on anyone other than yourself to help make decisions about what scenes need to be rewritten? Is there a particular mood or mindset you need to be in that makes the process easier? The comments are always open.

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