Here’s something you might not know: a writer generally spends as much (or more) time cutting words as writing them. And it can be heartbreaking–once you finally have your thoughts out and onto the page in clear, organized, rhythmic form, the last thing you want to do is commence a blood bath. But, assignments usually come with a word count, and editors don’t take kindly to egregious over-writing. (Egregious? Gone!) What to keep? What to cut? Every piece entails countless such decisions. So, how do we decide? A lot of ways, but there’s a saying among writers: Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
(I know; it’s a tad dark. But haven’t you heard? Writers are morbid.)
(Note: parenthesis are a one-way ticket to the cutting room floor.)
The idea here is that, sometimes, we come up with a clever little turn of phrase, metaphor, anecdote, or some other word-heavy sentiment that’s quite pleasing to our writerly soul. So pleasing that, when we’re going over (and over, and over) our story, looking for unnecessary, or repetitive, or ineloquent words to get rid of, we don’t even think about axing them. We adore them so much, they’re not even on our radar.
So, if we love them so, what’s up with the kill ‘em edict? Because often, they’re unnecessary. They don’t offer much in the way of facts or clarification or color. Cleverly-constructed though they might be, more often than not, they’re just a waste of space. And the truth of the matter is that a story is usually a lot better after passing through the hands of a ruthless editor.
Speaking of ruthless editors, the inspiration for today’s post was the film “The September Issue,” which I saw this weekend. In it–a documentary about the making of Vogue magazine’s September 2007 issue–there is one story line that stands out. Creative Director Grace Coddington–a bonafide genius, by the way (and, by the way, any phrase that includes ‘by the way’ would be out without a second thought)–orchestrates one shoot in particular that becomes her undeniable darling. And with good reason; to say the 1920s-inspired images, shot by Steven Meisel, are transcendent would not be much of an exaggeration. But, there were a lot of shots. And Coddington loved every single one of them. But, after a cursory review, Anna Wintour was quick to get rid of several of Coddington’s favorites, whittling the story down to a precious few pictures. Coddington was crushed.
After the fact, though, what did she have to say about it? Check this quote (and maybe take it with a grain of salt; it’s from an interview for Vogue’s website, about the film):
I also believe that everyone needs an editor. What [Wintour] does is edit and make my work stronger.
What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, it occurs to me that maybe, when it comes to the big life decisions, the many paths we find ourselves facing, we’d do well to wield the proverbial red pen. And, even, god forbid, to take it to some of our darlings. Maybe some of the energy we expend clinging to certain options would be better spent devoted to the few that really could work.
Maybe we’ve always wanted to sail around the world solo, write a novel, get our PhD–they’re lovely dreams, so we refuse to let them go. Despite the fact that we’ve never learned to sail, have no idea how to go about crafting a work of fiction, and, though we like how those extra letters look after our names, we have zero interest in actually doing the work required to earn them. It hurts to cross them off the bucket list–and, in a way, such an idea amounts to blasphemy to anyone weaned on the idea that she can be anything she wants–but I do wonder: as with a well-edited story, might our lives be stronger if we could just let them go?
And now (in honor of me finally accepting that a slot on Vogue‘s masthead is not likely in the cards–and because I have no editor), some gratuitous fashion porn.