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How Do You Know When The Words Need to Go?

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out - Samuel Johnson

How do you know when some of your words need to go?  When there are bits of prose which - however sparkling - deserve to end up on the cutting room floor?

This question has come up twice in the last few weeks.

Brad Shorr asked in the introduction to the simplicity theme:

How do you excise jargon and redundancy? How do you know when you’re digressing? How do you know when you’re providing too much detail - or not enough?

I mentioned a while back that I’d realised some sections of my writing tips book didn’t belong there.  Once they were cut I could safely press on.  Robyn McMaster came back and asked why I said the words didn’t fit:

Why can’t you use the words in both mediums with creative adjustment to match the different environments?

My initial answer to the question “how do you know?” was: I just know.

To “why can’t you use the words…?”: because they just don’t fit.

However, I realise those answers aren’t much use to man nor beast, so I’ve been mulling over the ideas and suggestions I’d offer to help you answer the question: how do you know when the words need to go?

I’ve got two answers so far.  One’s short.  The other needs a bit more explanation.

The first: read as much as you possibly can.  That’s the easiest way to get practiced at recognising good (and not so good) writing.

The second: get to know your inner editor.

Who or What’s the Inner Editor?

The inner editor is not to be called on when you’re writing.  You need to get far enough away from your words to be able to look at them dispassionately.  Your words might be sparklingly brilliant or particularly fine - and still need to go.

Besides, trying to edit and write at the same time will interupt the flow of your writing.

The inner editor is not the same as your inner critic.  The critic will try and talk you out of doing things you want to do, that stretch you, but might be taking you out of your comfort zone.  Your inner critic might protect you from rejection, but generally doesn’t have your best interests at heart.  S/he also has no idea about what makes for good or bad writing.

The inner editor, however, has a keen eye for what’s good, and what’s not.  S/he knows just what to cut.

(Mine is a she.  Fierce.  Wise.  Dispassionate.  A writing warrior.  What’s yours?)

The inner editor has your best interests at heart.  S/he wants your best work to shine.  She also knows that some things need to be cut, edited, moved around, or tightened up if you’re going to achieve maximum impact.

She’s your Samurai.

Natalie Goldberg talks about the time for the Samurai like this:

When you’re in the Samurai space you have to be tough.  Not mean, but with the toughness of truth… The courage to be honest.

How Does the Inner Editor Work?

To be honest, I don’t really know.  Mine just gets on with it without me doing too much about it (other than getting out of my own way.)  But in the interests of trying to be helpful (and to answer those questions) here are some of the things that I think are going on.

The inner editor cuts based on:

Visuals: looking at the overall pattern, cutting out clutter, checking it’s easy to read

Logic: does your argument make sense?  Does your point follow on from A, to B, to C?

Flow: the words need to flow as well as your argument.  Can you read it without tripping over anything? (Tip: read it out loud - it’s the best way to check.)

Instinct: sometimes you get a strong reaction to a piece of writing. That’s the bit you need to make sure and keep, to highlight, and to cut around.  Reactions might include hairs going up on the back of your neck, goose bumps, skin tingling, fingers tapping.  (They’re signals from your unconscious mind.)

Pace: how long does it take your readers to get to the point?  If it’s too fast you won’t make a connection.  Too slow and your readers will be frustrated, or gone.

Rhythm: this happens too fast for me to be consciously aware of but I think I edit based on the rhythm of the words.  The inner music even. (If anyone knows more about how this works, please do let me know.)

Just knowing: frustrating as it might be I’ll come back to my original answer.  Sometimes you just know - that something needs to be cut, moved, edited out, or saved for a rainy day.  When you get that feeling: trust it.  Your inner editor knows.

What would your answer to this question be: how do you know when the words need to go?

What kind of tools do you use to help you do the cutting?

Photo Credit: The eternal spirit by erika y on flickr

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  1. J.D. Meier says:

    Words need to go when they don’t add value or they make the reader work too hard.

    I try to right-size the content mostly based on intuitive pattern recognition. I first try to go for a scannable page, and I next try to figure out the speed bumps. If a speedbump is brutally important and I can’t factor it out, then I try to simplify the path by turning it into a heading. I find the right heading can help chop words down into size simply by creating a glide path for the reader.

    If I really have no clue, then I send it as an email to myself or a friend or two to get a reaction and trim accordingly.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..Why Do You Do What You Do?

  2. Andrew says:


    Personally, I adopt a two step approach whenever I attempt any form of writing:

    (1) Free writing.

    Firstly, I try to let myself think as freely as possible, and let my writing ‘go’ without a great deal of critical analysis until I have all of my ideas down on paper.

    (2) Editing.

    After I have all of my thoughts on paper, I try to switch to ‘inner editor’ mode, whereby I try to re-write everything using much the same ideas but in a shorter, sharper, crisper manner.

    Personally, I feel that the separation of the processes of free writing and editing is very important. For me, it is extremely difficult to think both creatively and critically at the same time. As a result, I try to avoid this if at all possible.

    I find that when I separate the process of writing and editing, I get the best of both worlds, and end up with a result which reflects both freer expression and greater discipline.

    Andrews last blog post..My best blog post of 2008

  3. Andrew says:

    Hi again, Joanna.

    Sorry, as soon as I hit ‘send,’ I realized that my above comment was a little off topic.

    I think you know that words and sentences need to go when step back, look at your key points, and see any sentences or discussion which does not address these key points.

    These are the words which need to go.

    Andrews last blog post..My best blog post of 2008

  4. Karen Swim
    Twitter: karenswim

    Joanna, nice analysis on what for me is largely an intuitive practice. You let go of the “artiste” and are able to see your work from the reader’s perspective. Walter Moseley recommends voice recording your book too as reading aloud & hearing your words read aloud helps you to find the rhythm which is difficult to do when simply reading silently.

    Karen Swims last blog post..Help! - Not Just a Beatles Song

  5. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Joanna, My inner editor works better after the writing has gone completely cold. Do you find it easier to edit that way as well? It sounds like Andrew does.

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..12 Marketing and Writing Book Recommendations

  6. Chris says:

    With my writing, I use a free program called yReader to read back my work aloud. I can usually hear what doesn’t fit that way.

  7. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    JD, thanks for sharing how it works for you. I particularly like your analogies - speed bumps and glide paths. It’s a useful way to think about how best to make it as easy as possible.

    Turning ‘bumps’ into headings is also useful. Headings work well in our short attention span world (well it does in mine anyway!)

    Andrew, yes, they’re such different processes aren’t they, or rather parts of us, at work. It makes sense to leave them both space to do their own job. I didn’t think the first response was off topic at all - it was part of that work to get distance and perspective that you mention. I also think that’s key - it’s finding a way to change our point of view.


  8. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Karen, it’s largely intuitive for me too, which made this challenging (but interesting) to write. Thanks for the pointer re reading aloud.

    Brad, it depends - if it’s something I’m not attached to I can do it quickly (almost as I’m writing). If the words are important or for some reason I think they’re ‘particularly fine’ (nail on the head Mr Johnson…) then yes, I need to wait until they’ve gone stone cold.

    Chris, hello, welcome, and thanks for that tip. Interesting how much of what we’re cutting is based on auditory patterns isn’t it?

  9. Robert Hruzek says:

    Interesting you should ask that question, Joanna. Having recently written an article for a decidedly non-blogging audience, I came face to face with that inner editor - and it wasn’t pretty!

    See, when I write for MZM (and when leaving comments everywhere else), I sorta get into my “cowboy” persona and just write the way I think, if you get my meanin’. (Hmmm… I just reread that previous sentence. Hope that’s not too scary a thought!)

    But it was quite a shock to suddenly have to rein in all free-wheelin’ stuff to write for a completely different (and somewhat, er, staid) audience.

    But as to how I edit either way, well… it’s like you said, I kinda just “know”. I suppose reading aloud would help, but I haven’t really tried that yet. (It still feels kinda silly to be talkin’ to myself like that.)

    Guess I still have a ways to go… :-\

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..My Best Post from 2008

  10. Glenda Watson Hyatt says:

    Joanna, I find your approach refreshing. Editing is based on instinct and what feels right rather than on grammatical rules and other painful stuff. Thank you.

    Glenda Watson Hyatts last blog post..The Gift is Within

  11. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Robert, I know what you mean. Every so often I have to go back to ‘civil servant’ speak and I realise how far my language has developed (improved I’d say!) since blogging and tweeting came along. But we still have the instinct about what to keep in & what’s got to go.

    I don’t actually read stuff back to myself either - I do it in my head. I’m too impatient to edit and proof read properly - I’d need to hand it over to someone else. I’m probably more of a swordswoman than a surgeon!

    Glenda, having just read your totally stunning post, written right from the heart… I’d have to agree.

  12. Jasmin Tragas says:

    Joanna your post opened my eyes to realise I have been confusing my inner editor with my inner critic! Thanks!

    Jasmin Tragass last blog post..A creative education and Kay Gordon’s legacy

  13. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jasmin, I knew I was meant to write this post for a reason :-)

  14. Ulla Hennig
    Twitter: ullahe

    thanks for this post! What about the problem of cutting too much out? I’ve done a bit of creative writing in German some time ago, and my problem there was that I had too many things only in my mind but not written down. So people had difficulties to follow.

    Ulla Hennigs last blog post..Simply the Best

  15. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Ulla, good question, and one for which at this moment I have no answer! Partly because I have no experience of writing fiction. I might have to ask some other readers round here… :-)

  16. Robert Hruzek says:

    Ulla; I think one solution is letting a “trusted advisor” (friend or whoever) read it, then let them summarize it back to you.

    If you don’t hear what you thought you’d hear, then you may have left something out!

    (Or… they might have just missed your point. People do that, y’know…)

    Feedback is the key here. ;-)

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..Mark the Date, Y’all!

  17. Ulla Hennig
    Twitter: ullahe

    yes, I think feedback is really the key. But now that I am writing in English I’ve got another problem: whom can I ask? My German friends don’t speak or write enough English…

    Ulla Hennigs last blog post..Simply the Best

  18. Robert Hruzek says:

    Well… I’m sure there’s a herd of folks on Twitter that know you a bit now. Find someone who likes the genre of fiction you’re writing and ask them. Worth a try. (If it’s sci-fi, then I’m your guy!)

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..Mark the Date, Y’all!

  19. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Robert, thanks for jumping in with the help :-)

  20. wilson says:

    Nice advice, Joanna. I’ve never thought about the inner editor before, and I should consider to use it…

    wilsons last blog post..A Fast Recap Of WillYouMind For 2008!

  21. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Wilson, the inner editor is really a writer’s friend. I hope you enjoy getting to know yours :-)

  22. Robyn McMaster says:

    Joanna, I missed seeing this post earlier. You certainly show some reasons why we need to be careful of word choice and the difference between and inner critic and inner editor. I note that you advise that the inner editor should not be at work at the same time you write. I’ve followed Natalie Goldman’s advice for a long time after I realized why I was unable to bring more creativity to my writing. Thanks for the mention!

    Robyn McMasters last blog post..Mental Rehearsal Boosts Performance

  23. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Robyn, glad you found the post now… even more glad you discoverered the key to bringing creativity to your writing :-)