In this multi-day writing and editing challenge, we’re putting your red pen to the test. Each day, 10% of your post gets the axe.
Being a good writer means knowing how to edit: taking what you’ve written and stripping out the dulling distractions so your ideas shine. It’s not always easy, but it is necessary.
In this multi-day writing challenge, we’re forcing your editorial hand. You’ll spend one day writing and three more editing before you publish.
In writing, you must kill your darlings.
– William Faulkner
They’re called “first drafts” for a reason.
I love Cheri’s excellent advice:
“A colleague applying to an artists’ program wrote a 2,000 word statement listing her hurdles and accomplishments, yet I came away not reading anything memorable.
I suggested: Describe something — a childhood encounter, a challenging exchange with a professor, a moment of enlightenment — I can picture. Make yourself a character: one that I can follow, that I can imagine when I close my eyes.”
Have you written a list, or a story?
First drafts are filled with nuggets of goodness scattered among thoughts that don’t actually move our ideas forward (but seemed brilliant when we wrote them). And that’s fine! It’s what a first draft is for: to throw all the things you think are important at the page.
Once they’re out of your brain and on the screen, though, it’s time to assess them with a critical eye. Which bits are the crux? Focus on them. Which add helpful detail or emotional color, but are not central? They get sprinkled in at key points. Which don’t contribute at all? Heave ho!
Sometimes, the extra baggage is obvious, and therefore easy to toss out. Sometimes, though, we grow attached to our words, and it’s painful — to kill our darlings. Still, if a beautifully-turned phrase doesn’t express something important for your post, it’s just a hanger-on. It hurts to cut — how can we deprive the reading public of this gorgeous sentiment? — but your piece will be better for it.
Time to trim the fat.
This week your darlings are getting the axe, like it or not. Here’s what you’ll do:
- Today — whenever you’re reading this — start a new post. Write until you’ve said everything you want to say, then save your draft — but don’t publish.
- Tomorrow, open the post and check the word count (hint: it appears at the bottom of the editing box). Edit your post down by 10%, then save it and forget it again.
- Repeat on two more days, until you’ve done three days of editing.
- After three days of editing, hit “Publish.”
If your original draft was 1,000 words, the piece you ultimately publish should be around 730; if you started with 500, you’ll end up with 365 or so. If you’re a flash fiction writer who starts with 50, you’ll need to get yourself down to 36. (If you have a bolt of searing editorial insight and want to cut it down more than 10% on any day, feel free.) Whether you’re a long-form or short-form blogger, learning to wield your red pen ruthlessly will improve your writing.
Feeling stuck for inspiration? Write a post, fiction or non, using these as your opening line: “The tea and toast were stone-cold, but I didn’t notice. How could I, when s/he was there?” or try a daily prompt you haven’t responded to yet.
Your post can be on anything you’d like; we’re not giving you a topic, just a process. If you’d like, add an author’s note to the end of your post (or publish a follow-up post) reflecting on what it was like to be forced to pare down something you’d written.
You can start this challenge whenever you’re reading this post; if it’s not Tuesday, no worries! Now, time to sit at the keyboard and let the ideas flow — but keep that red pen waiting in the wings!