My Cut Material File and How it Frees Me

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!


14 Responses to My Cut Material File and How it Frees Me

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 22 2018 at 7:15 am #

    I have something like that, although as a bottom-up writer, I usually need to add more text, rather than take anything out. I have a file I call ‘stuff’. I mostly put stuff in and take it out again later, in a better place. The act of writing it influences the way the story goes, and I often find that it was simply put in too soon. The act of removing it from the MS is the important part, since I don’t want those words to be in front of me as I try to write something else. Only with the old words gone can I write new and better words.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 22 2018 at 10:01 am #

      Hi Marc! Thanks for the comment. I really relate to “simply put in too soon.” I also find some things need to be moved, rather than deleted. 🙂

  2. JeffO Aug 22 2018 at 7:49 am #

    I have a cut file, too. It’s not for everything that gets cut, but for passages (especially big ones) that I either just really like but realize won’t fit into the story, or for when that cut makes an especially big change in the story.

    I’m usually pretty good about cutting and not getting hung up on it. The way I figure it, it’s not a waste, as it was writing that helped me uncover story/character/setting/whatever, even if it doesn’t end up in the finished product. And while I, too, rarely use the cut file for anything, one lengthy passage from my first unpublished novel ended up turning into a published short story, so you never know!

    • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 22 2018 at 8:51 am #

      “it was writing that helped me uncover story/character/setting/whatever, even if it doesn’t end up in the finished product”
      That happens to me too. I’ll sometimes write a few paragraphs that explain a great deal about what’s going on, internally or externally, but of course I don’t want to explain a great deal about what’s going on, so I cut out all the build-up and just leave the conclusion.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 22 2018 at 10:03 am #

      Hi Jeffo! Congrats on that short story! Such a great lesson on the wisdom of saving what we cut. And I agree that what we cut often helps us better understand the world. 🙂

  3. Elaine Clampitt Aug 22 2018 at 10:38 am #

    I have a “Deleted Scenes” file where I keep scenes I’ve cut. One of the things I love about Scrivener (the writing program I use) is you can also take a “snapshot” of a scene, then rewrite some or all and then take another “snapshot” and can do that over and over, then compare different versions. This would be more for if you aren’t sure about a smaller portion. If it was a whole scene, I’d probably move that scene to my DS file and start over. It’s so easy to move scenes around in Scrivener. I love it! Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 22 2018 at 11:02 am #

      Hi Elaine! Thanks for sharing your method, and this info about Scrivener! I tried Scrivener once and struggled with it, but I frequently think about giving it another go. This feature for rewriting scenes sounds pretty helpful. 🙂

  4. Heide H. Aug 22 2018 at 7:15 pm #

    What a GREAT idea… I have just been editing my MS for PitchWars, and have lopped off a great load of waffle that would have bogged down the storyline, but I was a bit sad at seeing the cut paragraphs just disappear. From now on, it’s “CUT FILE CITY”, baby.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 22 2018 at 7:23 pm #

      Hooray! So glad this post helped you, Heide. Your comment made my day. Best of luck with PitchWars! 🙂

  5. PJ Braley Aug 23 2018 at 2:27 pm #

    Excellent post. I love the idea of a cut file…usually I just save versions without any indication of what is being cut (or added). I am going to start doing that today.

    Like you, cutting is getting easier. I remember when I started writing, editing felt like I was cutting off the fingers and toes of my first born child…but now I think of it as polishing a rough stone; you can’t see the shine if you don’t smooth the edges.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 23 2018 at 3:07 pm #

      Hi PJ! Thanks for the comment. “Like cutting off the fingers and toes of my first born child…” What a great analogy! But you’re so right the importance of smoothing out the edges. I hope you find using a cut file helpful. 🙂

  6. Celia Reaves Aug 23 2018 at 3:48 pm #

    I heartily second this idea. I call my file “Deletions,” but it serves the same purpose: encouraging me to cut where I need to without worrying that I’ll want it back later.Thank you for posting this!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Aug 23 2018 at 8:15 pm #

      Hi Celia! Thanks for commenting. So glad this method works for you, too! 🙂

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