Sometimes when an actor is being interviewed, they will say they were in a particular film, “but my scene was left on the cutting room floor,” meaning they were cut out of the movie. This used to strike me as pretty depressing. Just the thought of all that work—work by the actors, the director, and the cinematographer— all tossed out because the film editor thought it wasn’t needed.
That was before I learned the hard truths about cutting my own work. Now I appreciate those film editors who made tough choices, including the choice to leave a well-acted, well-shot scene on the cutting room floor, because it didn’t add to the overall story. (For more on this, Caleb Roehrig wrote an inspiring post about slashing a draft called Kill Your Darlings, which I highly recommend.)
The more mature I become as a writer, the more willing I am to cut. I’ve learned to break out of the rigid walls I build with my own words by allowing myself as much freedom to tear them down as to put them up. To trust myself to add something that might be a risk because I trust myself to take it out if I realize it doesn’t belong in this book.
The secret to giving myself the freedom to tear things apart has been a safety net I call my “Cut Materials” file.
The “delete” button is always terrifying. Hit “delete” followed by “save,” and that huge block of text is gone. All that work—it might represent hours and hours at the keyboard—gone. And let’s be honest, there’s probably something in that block of text worth using one day. Maybe that character that drags down this story would elevate a different one. Or maybe there’s a good description here, or a clever bit of dialogue. Or maybe I’ll realize the story is just out of order, and I’ll want to paste this whole block of text somewhere else later.
This is why every draft of every manuscript I write has a “Cut Material” file. It’s a lot easier to cut a paragraph, a page, or even a chapter (or in the case of my current book, a multi-chapter sequence,) if I know I’m saving it somewhere. Of course, I keep the earlier draft, so that version is always intact, but chances are that file in in a different folder. That’s stashed away in the attic of the “Draft One” folder. I’m in the “First Revision” folder now, working on a draft that is growing and stretching, and I need a handy place to drop this cut text where it can be kept safe and out of my way, yet available, in case I need to pull it back in.
When I start a new draft, I open a blank file, save it as “Cut Material,” and keep it open behind my active file. (I usually also have an open file containing my outline, or revision notes, or something else I’m referencing as I go.) When something needs to be cut, it’s not such a big decision if I’m just dropping it into the “Cut Material” file. I try to keep it all in order, chapter by chapter, so I can find my way around it later, if I ever need to.
The truth is, I rarely go back to it. Once I cut a block of text that really needs to go, I almost never go looking for it again. But sometimes I do. Sometimes I sift through the Cut Material file, find what I want, and bring it back. But ninety-nine percent of the time, it stays in that Cut Material file for good.
Still, having that file lets me work with confidence. It lets me build up and slash apart without fear. I mentioned earlier that the more mature I become as a writer, the more I cut. Let me revise that:
The more mature I become as a writer, the more I cut without fear.
I have a lot of writerly fears. Fears that hold back my writing. As I mature as a writer, I’m learning to overcome those fears. Cutting has always been one of them, and the Cut Material file has helped me overcome it.
What about you? How do you handle cutting your own words? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!