Cleaning House: A Guide for Writers

January is great. You get to push the restart button on your life in any way you choose and motivation is easy to find because nothing is more natural than starting out on the first day of the first month with a new something.

This year, I’m jumping on the purge wagon. I was talking to my sister on the phone on New Year’s Day and she told me about something she learned from a friend. Go through your stuff and throw or give something away every day of the month. The number of things you do this with each day must match the date. So, throw away/donate one thing on the first, two things on the second, three things on the third. You get the idea. And since I’m planning on exchanging my bachelorette pad for a shared space with my boyfriend, it’s the perfect time to purge!

Naturally, I’ve taken this to new heights and have gotten rid of dozens of things I don’t need in the first two days. But, I’m still doing something every day to pare down my possessions to get ready for my exciting move!

That’s great and all, but you might be wondering, how does this have anything at all to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually. Getting rid of stuff in your writing can be as hard as writing it in the first place. At least, that’s the case if you’re me. But sometimes (usually) it’s a necessary step in the editing process. In the spirit of the purging season, I thought I’d walk through some tips and ideas for cleaning house with your writing.

  1. Do a cutting draft. If you’re a bit of a masochist, you can always opt to do a cutting draft. Read through your manuscript and only cut things. Things you don’t like. Things that don’t work. Things that don’t make sense. Things that shouldn’t be there. Get rid of it all. I had a professor in college who did a cutting draft and got rid of everything in his entire novel except for a couple of hundred words. I could never do that. But, the idea of the cutting draft is useful and I do think that the cutting draft can be done in a more conservative or less soul-crushing way. But, you do you.
  2. Remember: words are money – and then edit accordingly. If you’ve ever worked in the print or publishing business, you know that words=money. When I used to work on business-to-business sales catalogs, I was always evaluating the necessity of copy because additional pages cost the company money and it was my job to write, edit and save the green wherever possible. In your own work, think about words as money and then edit accordingly. Can you say something with fewer words? Or do you even need to write that sentence at all?
  3. Consider the flow of your story – and then cut where appropriate. Does every scene in your story serve a purpose? Does each one reveal something about your characters and/or drive the plot forward in some way? If not, consider whether or not those scenes really need to be there. A longer story isn’t always better.
  4. Kill your darlings. This is a phrase I heard often in creative writing school. Are you keeping something in your story because it really should be there? Or are you just too attached to a certain image, phrase or paragraph? Consider whether something you love is really pertinent to your work in progress and then decide whether or not it should get the axe. I did this with the original first 20,000 words of Withered World. There were some chapters that I loved, but it just wasn’t a compelling way to tell the story and I was worried readers would find it boring and quite reading. So, away it went! Although losing some of that content was a real blow, my story was much better for it.

Cleaning house with your writing is a tough job. You have to teach yourself to read objectively and that’s hard when it’s something you’re really close to, especially when you’re the one who wrote it! If you’re having trouble doing the writing purge, maybe step away from the project for a few days or even a week and get some distance. This will help you come back to the page with a more objective outlook. What do you do when you get to the editing or cutting phase? Please feel free to share your own tips and thoughts in the comments!

Happy 2018!

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