It was Mark Twain who, in 1894 in Pudd’nhead Wilson, dealt so succinctly with the adjective: ‘When in doubt, strike it out.’ Even earlier, in Boswell’s 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, a similar sentiment can be found: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’
It took me several years to come to my current understanding of these aphorisms. As a student I was bewildered, thinking these writers were advising me to sabotage my work by slashing out what I deemed ‘the best bits’. Giddy on Joyce and the rich, pungent gush of Irish words, I wanted MORE in my writing, not less. To cut what I imagined was a fine passage felt like mutilation, a blood sacrifice to some demanding, ancient deity called Great Old Dead White Male Writers. Was it a rites of passage, some initiation I needed to go through before I truly understood what it was to write?
No. I was simply very young and very earnest and as green as the distant hills. Experience has shown me the clue is in: ‘a passage which you think is particularly fine…’ Johnson was quoting advice given to him by his college tutor when a young man, filled with his early fascination for language and intoxication with words.
Less is more and taste is all. Overwrought poetry and prose topples under the weight of its adornments. Like an over-dressed Christmas tree, you can’t see the pine for the baubles and it’s likely to keel over headfirst.
When revising work, we need discipline and distance so we don’t become self-indulgent. Nothing extraneous should be in our work. We can’t keep the beautifully put phrase that no longer fits the content, nor allow the favourite, fine piece of writing stay without fear of it upstaging the rest of the work. So many times when I’ve been reading work I’ve tripped on a well-turned phrase that somehow jars. When I point it out (which will invariably happen) the writer smiles ruefully, muttering ‘I know, I know… I should cut it, but I just love that line…’
Which brings me rather neatly to Mamet and his infamous ‘Kill all your darlings’. He is not, I believe, inviting us to get rid of all our brilliant ideas, or the plots, characters, and dialogue we are engaged with and incubating, bringing to completion. He is demanding we press delete on the parts that make us act indulgently, ignoring the faults of spoilt, precocious lines which disrupt the otherwise beautifully composed page with their noisy, attention-seeking LOOK AT ME! AREN’T I FINE! effect.
Alternatively, I interpret this as cutting the now defunct sections, perhaps the original seeds of the work, carried since the initiation of the script/book/story/poem, which we can’t, just can’t imagine NOT taking the rest of the journey…
We can and we should. Editing and revising work is not a process entirely free of pain.
Here’s some other quotations about editing which I’ve found to be sound advice and salve to that ache:
Omit needless words…A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
William Strunk The Elements of Style (1918) [I highly recommend this book]
If there is anything said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and as engagingly said in one, then it’s amateur work.
Robert Louis Stevenson, letter to William Archer, 1888
I often covered more than a hundred sheets of paper with drafts, revisions, rewritings, ravings, doodlings, and intensely concentrated work to produce a single verse.
Dylan Thomas in a letter 1940’s
Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.
F Scott Fitzgerald. 1959
You know you’re writing well when you’re throwing good stuff in the basket.
Good luck and enjoy.
© Kaite O’Reilly 26/11/11