May 19, 2014
In a New York Times piece published last week, writer Pamela Erens gleefully recounted cutting stray words, sentences and even bigger chunks out of her novels. In a column entitled The Joys of Trimming, the writer boasted of her crowning achievement: slashing the second half of a book. Her novel went from a fat 105,000 words to a streamlined 60,000 words, more a novella than a novel. She said she barely missed the material she’d cut, though she worked on the book for years.
Her funny but wise column made me reflect on my own writing issues, which usually are just the opposite. As a journalist for thirty-plus years, I had honed my writing to austere sentences, unadorned paragraphs and stories that steadily shrank as papers became smaller and tighter. When I started writing my novel, Saving Texas, in 2010, I had to learn to write a whole new way. Instead of cutting out description and going light on scene setting, as journalists are admonished to do these days, I worked hard to put more color and detail in.
I’m still not good at this, perhaps because I fear that adding detail and length will lose readers. But I understand what my mentors mean when they say my first drafts are thin. It’s as though I’m writing an outline and I always need to go back and fill it in.
Most of the advice you read about revising your work focuses on cutting, not adding. Erens concludes that judicious cutting increases the vitality, precision and the emotional heart of most writing. She’s right. But I need to keep adding the seasoning and spice until I get just the right mix of ingredients for a tasty dish.