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How to Edit: Furniture Removal

I mentioned the other day that I was moving and now you’ve probably guessed this is going to be another moving/writing parable. (And you would be right, congratulations.)

This one is about editing. Editing is something that we all have to put up with. We write and write and write and sooner or later, if we ever want to see anything of ours published we need to go back and revise, rewrite, rephrase, trim, etc.

(Theoretically, I guess there could be a few writers out there that are such naturally good writers that they never need to edit and if you’re one of them then you can skip this post with my blessings, my envy, and very well-hidden scowl.)

There are as many facets to editing as there are to writing, more perhaps. Editing takes what we’ve written and helps shape it. We take off the rougher edges, sand out the splinters, and wash the dust from our clichés. Today I’m going to talk about one of the technically easier, but more emotionally challenging parts of editing: The Trim.

I like to get rid of things when moving. I’m something of a minimalist and, frankly, it means less to move. Every move is accompanied with at least one trip to Goodwill to donate a load of boxes filled with things I no longer deem necessary. Some of it is easy. Clothes that no longer fit. Pots and Pans I have multiples of and do not use, old games and puzzles, things like that.

That part of the trim is easy. You go back over your work and remove all the little things. Duplicate words, or sentences, plot twists or exposition you rendered useless with better dialogue or explained better later one. Maybe you have a better idea of one of your characters now and realize the plot hook in chapter 4 shouldn’t be there. It happens. No big deal.

But then it gets tougher. What about the books I’ve already read? Do they get donated or carted to the next place? Am I ever going to read them again or are they just going to sit there? The ones I read and didn’t like are easy. They go straight to the library. The ones I liked are tougher. I don’t usually re-read books except for a very rare few. Still, some of them are really good to have around, maybe I should keep them to share with friends who need a book, or in case I get the urge later to re-read one of them. I could keep all the books I like, but I read a lot and that ends up being a lot of books. Even if I like them there is no guarantee that I’ll ever pick them off the shelf again. So, what do I do?

I have to take it on a case by case basis. If it was a really popular book then I can donate it with ease, figuring that most people will have read it or have a copy if I want to re-read it. (That’s why the Harry Potter series didn’t make the trip. I loved the books, but if I need to re-read them practically everyone I know has a set.) Super obscure books get kept, and I always make room in the box for my personal favorites.

This is an example of a slightly more difficult kind of editing. Trimming down the exposition. Do we really need all the little explanations? Some of them are easy to get rid of: we just have to trust the reader to remember the setting, or figure out that if someone trips on a rock, then there is probably a rock on the floor. (I’ve seen that one explained in print, people. It happens.) We obviously need to explain a little about the more obscure aspects of our setting, but we don’t have to do it all the time that piece of setting comes up.

Poetry books and paintings are another set that gets tough. We should keep what makes us happy, the pieces we gain wisdom or insight from, and those pieces that really compliment the décor. (It really tied the room together, man.) But we don’t have to keep them all. Some books of poems go to the library and some paintings get donated. We don’t need them and they do nothing for us. The difficulty often comes in drawing the line. There are pieces that we kind of like, or we hate, but they have sentimental value. My advice to you on those is simple. If you’re not sure, then keep them. You can always let them go later, but sometimes you can’t get them back.

Emotional description is like this. Some books are so full of emotional turmoil and interpersonal relations that you can’t find the plot with a metal detector and a magnifying glass. As writers I urge you to keep the character’s emotions not only in mind, but also in the book. Keep the parts that make you happy, keep the parts that give the readers insight or wisdom, and keep the parts that really tie things together: a good love scene, a quiet reassuring word from a friend, a moment of indecision. The things that really bind the characters. But get rid of the rest. So much of emotional description is just empty baggage. Your characters don’t want it, they wouldn’t consciously think about it, and it does your readers no good, get rid of it. When in doubt, keep it, but remember that you can trim it out later if you decide.

The stuff that is hardest to get rid of, for me, is the furniture. I keep everything I use, of course, and you should too. It’s the stuff I don’t use, but is perfectly functional that I have problems with. This last move I had a standing floor fan I had bought for my place two apartments ago. I hadn’t used it the entire time I was in this apartment. It had just sat, in the corner of my bedroom, taking up space and waiting for the day I would need it again. It was a perfectly good fan, everything worked, I just didn’t need it.

The hard parts to trim, for me, are the scenes you don’t need. There is nothing wrong with them. They are perfectly well written, beautifully so at times. You just don’t need them in your book. Maybe it’s the hidden scene that reveals your character’s love of oysters, a fact that never becomes relevant at any point in your book. Or maybe it’s when they find a clue that you’re no longer using. Whatever it is, it’s a great scene: it’s perfect, there is nothing wrong with it, you just don’t need it. It has no use and it doesn’t need to be in your book. If you truly think it’s perfect then copy it into another file. Think of it as putting it into storage.

Trimming your novel down is simple, you just delete the parts you don’t need. Our love for our words is what makes it hard. Take it in strides if you need to. No one is saying it’s easy.