Wielding the Word Axe to Edit Your Writing

You’ve finished the first draft of The Great American Novel. You know it will reach the NY Times’ Top Ten List in its first week and turn the publishing world upside down. You hope it will even become a modern classic.

But caution: until you have wielded the word axe, your novel will go nowhere. Why? Because most writers revel in the written word and wallow in the imagery and lyricism of what they’ve written but forget about the reader’s desire to make sense of it. Clarity and purpose are as essential – perhaps even more important – than poeticism. In the words of one great American, Keep It Simple, Stupid!

So where do you begin?

At the beginning.

From page one, look to cut, cut, cut. Look to eliminate the unnecessary by cutting adverbs. Adverbs (generally) slow the pace of the story and/or reduce the story to ‘telling’, not showing. Strings of (colorful, unique, exciting) adjectives become repetitive and tiresome. Use the active voice with strong verbs; it keeps the reader in the present. Use dialogue in place of excessive narrative. It is simpler, more direct, and involves the reader immediately. Save that beautiful narrative voice for those precious moments when you must explore thought or setting or character. Do not, however, wallow in it.

Have another writer read your selection, but look for someone with guts. Look for a writer who has a simpler style than yours. They will see more clearly what you cannot. It’s painful to cut the language you find titillating, but it may be what complicates your story. If you want a story to have punch, it must be succinct. It must be provocative and it must be focused. Too often the elaborate sentences we believed impressed our English teachers in school are the sentences that keep our writing from singing.

Cut more. Don’t be afraid to cut down to the bone. It is then you find the structure of your story. You can always flesh a story out, but it’s necessary to see the essence of your story before doing so.

Then, apply a simple test: In one word, describe what your story is really about. Is it about love, courage, redemption, revenge, power, or what? Next, write a single sentence detailing the main conflict of your story. If you can narrow the ‘theme’ (the one word description) and the ‘plot’ (character/conflict) into those manageable units, you are on your way to understanding more clearly what your story is about. Against those two things, you must then weigh the scenes, dialogue, conflict, narrative, etc, to see if they move the story forward in the right direction.

So, being aggressive, go after that manuscript and trim it, dice it, even chop it up. Take it down to raw bone and look at it carefully. Understand its essence and then take it forward, dressing it and curing it. In the end, you will have a more powerful version of your story.

Happy cutting!

Gail Jenner‘s first novel, Across the Sweet Grass Hills, published in 2001, won the 2002 WILLA Literary Award for Original Paperback Fiction, from Women Writing the West. Her second book, Western Siskiyou Country: Gold and Dreams, was published in 2002, as part of Arcadia’s “Making of America” history series. In addition, Ms. Jenner has published numerous short stories, articles and has placed in a number of contests, including: The William Faulkner Literary Short Story Contest; The Jack London Novel Contest; The Chesterfield Film Project; The Writer’s Network International Fiction and Screenplay Contest; The Fade In Screenplay Contest; and The Acclaim Film Contest.