The Scalpel Of Decision – To Cut Or Not To Cut

I walked into the aging classroom, eager to teach the new group of writers. Before I introduced myself, a woman in the group stood up and took me by surprise: “I recently lost my husband,” she said. “I’ve been writing all about it to help process my pain. I signed up for this class so you would edit my work.” She sat down, I introduced myself and the class began. Through group introductions, I learned that her name was Hazel.

I taught the first night’s lesson and at the end of class, I walked up to Hazel. “I’m not an editor,” I explained, “but I would be willing to look over the first three chapters of your manuscript and make a few comments.” She agreed and handed me her entire manuscript in a folder. When I got home I removed the first three chapters I had offered to edit and placed the rest in a rubber band.

Those first three chapters were very good. Hazel was writing vivid detail about her husband’s last days in his hospital bed and the writing was raw and alive. I noted how good it was in the margin. I also noted that she needed to get me out of that hospital room now and then; I was starting to suffocate. I suggested that she take me to the window and show me something that was happening in the parking lot or perhaps show me the sky and describe the light. I thought it was sound advice and handed the folder back to her at the end of the next class.

Hazel did not come back to class the following week, nor did she come for the rest of the six-week session. One year had passed before Hazel signed up for another one of my classes. She walked up to me and told me that my editing really upset her. I was surprised. She said my comments made sense, but she didn’t want to alter her writing in any way and that she had stopped writing that story altogether. She also said she was in a better place emotionally and was ready to make a fresh start.

Editing is a touchy area and self-editing is tough work. This is why we cannot edit alone. We need feedback, advice and criticism and getting emotional when we get it, especially when we ask for it, isn’t productive. If you want to be a writer, it is essential to accept criticism. Beta readers and critique groups are good, but professional editors are my favorite. Not only do they line edit, they work on developmental editing which involves the shape of the plot, characterization, structural narrative and timeline issues.

In Standing On A Whale, my first novel, I had some major time line issues that I couldn’t see by myself. My editor was invaluable in helping me getting it all straightened out and my story was better for it. By remaining open and listening to sound advice, I learned a lot about editing. I also had a first chapter that I used as Back Story to get me jump started. I was sure my editor was going to ask me to cut it and let my story stand on its own, but she liked it and suggested I use it as the Prologue. I was thrilled that I got to keep it, but had she asked me to cut it, I would have.

We must constantly ask ourselves, “Can my story stand on its own without this line, this paragraph, or this narrative?” If it can, use your scalpel. If revision means to envision again, using your scalpel can be a good thing. Search your writing, scalpel in hand, and hunt for shining thoughts, energized thoughts, alive and present thoughts. Cut the rest. While you are editing, you may just find some extra time to add more layers and create more tension. You owe it to yourself and to your readers to submit well-edited writing. Your future writing career could depend on it.

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