Monday, July 4, 2011

How to Ease Your Heartfelt Heartless Cutting by Noelle Sterne

Hello fellow writers, and Happy Independence Day!
Today I've invited good friend Noelle Sterne to stop by with a writing advice piece. Noelle and I originally met years ago at the Absolute Write website, where we both published articles about writing. Since then, we've stayed in touch. Noelle's articles appear in some of the most prestigious writing magazines. Please see her full bio below and help me welcome her to Murderby4 today.

Remember, if you love to write, write like the wind!

- Aaron Lazar
© 2011 Noelle Sterne
 How to Ease Your Heartfelt Heartless Cutting 
by Noelle Sterne

            Sometimes we hate what we write and easily trash it. Other times, we can’t bear to relinquish it. Even though we may modestly deprecate our writing aloud to others, most of us are secretly captivated by most of what we write. But for effective and salable work, we must trade overattachment for prudent detachment and learn to survey our work with less parental pride and more outsider objectivity.
            To do so takes discipline and practice. What parent can bear to throw out any of the baby’s prized creations, from the first preschool scribbles to fifth-grade Valentine poems to college short stories? Yet that’s what we must do with our work—weed, pare, and discard. 
            Heartless? Maybe, but essential if you want your work to radiate polish and professionalism. Novelist D. M. Thomas says, “The process of writing demands, above all, a degree of calmness, of distance. The audience may weep, but the singer must not.”[i]  
            This “distance” is one of the hardest skills for a writer to acquire. Not that we aren’t supposed to admire, like, be satisfied with, proud of, or happy about what we write. But there’s a real difference between such feelings and excessive love of our words.
            Many writers recognize and advise against this self-enchantment. Over two hundred years ago, the eighteenth-century literary critic and author Samuel Johnson admonished, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”[ii] In recent times, in a Writer’s Market, Gloria Burke counsels, “Be ruthless if a sentence doesn’t seem to fit. No matter how creative your words may sound, don’t clutch them to your bosom. If they don’t belong, get rid of them.”[iii]
Therapists and writers Jean and Veryl Rosenbaum in The Writer’s Survival Guide clarify the psychological side: “Some authors love their creations too much, and they can’t believe anyone could fail to appreciate the beauty of their style. This is narcissistic, thinking everything you do is perfect just because it’s yours.”[iv]
William Faulkner (heartlessly) gets right to the point: “Kill your darlings.”[v]
            The message is undeniable:

                                                If you love it, cut it.
            Maybe your first reaction is to groan. And probably your second is a series of questions: “How do I detect too much love? How do I know what to cut? How do I develop that critical eye?” Well, I’ve discovered three major warning signs of a hopeless—and self-defeating—infatuation with your own words. These signs are gleaned from my own embarrassed experience and those of other red-faced writers:

1.    Your body tells you.
2.    Your mind protests.
3.    Your emotions blind you.
These three responses apply to any kind of writing, from letters to lists to poems to tomes, and they’ll help you recognize your own enthralled fixations.
1.    Your body tells you.
            As you look at a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph in one of your pieces, almost unconsciously you stop. Something doesn’t feel right. In Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books for Publication, Bertha Amoss and Eric Suben call this the instinct that “sets off a bell” in your head.[vi] Other writers suffer more dramatic visceral reactions: a sense of malaise, a sinking feeling in the stomach, a moment of dizziness, a sudden sweat, a throbbing pulse, an inexplicable pang of hunger.
            If these symptoms aren’t enough to alert you, take this little test.
                        * Do you already feel depressed, mourning the loss of this passage?
                        * When you contemplate cutting this part, do you cry, scream, and
               pound your desk instead of the keyboard?
                        * Do you have an irresistible urge to run for the corn chips?
            Listen to your body. It’s telling you, first, that the passage needs work, and second, that you’re too invested in it. Swallow hard, soothe your forehead with a cool wet cloth, and face it. It’s time to cut.

2. Your mind protests.
            Even toying with the idea of cutting that passage, your mind loudly objects. It defends, reasons, and rationalizes. To ourselves or anyone who will listen, we usually verbalize our outrage in one or more of several ways:
                        1. “The piece needs this passage! It’s explanatory, descriptive, lyrical,
                              eloquent, graphic, flowing, stirring, exciting, powerful . . . .”
                        2. “It proves my genius!” 
                        3. “When my old English teacher reads this, she’ll eat her red pencil!”
And finally,

                        4. “Look at all the drafts I’ve labored through, all the e-thesaurus pages I’ve scrolled through, all the coffee and brownies I’ve consumed!”
5. “Look at how @#*$%^ hard I’ve worked!”  

            However logical and reasonable you think these defenses are, they aren’t. The first reaction is unfounded rationalization and shows the extremes of your runaway ardor. The second is childish, a cousin of the Rosenbaums’ observation about our lurking narcissism. This response is also every novice writer’s favorite fantasy—you’ll be acclaimed, applauded, and rewarded by the world without having to pay your dues.
            The third exclamation is ineffective petulant revenge. Your old English teacher may or may not remember you but you can bet doesn’t believe you or your writing were treated unfairly. And if that teacher ever did read your piece with this passage in it, I guarantee the red pencil would fire up like an autopen.
            The fourth and fifth retaliations are the self-righteous victim’s. If you really want to be rational, admit that no reader—parent, partner, friend, editor—cares how much time, effort, calories, time, and sweat you’ve put in. All they care about is how the final product grabs them, what it shows them, and how much it makes them want to keep reading. Besides, as you may have already learned, to sacrifice product to process by using your monumental work as justification simply isn’t what writing is about.
3. Your emotions blind you.
            This condition is a little more subtle than the others but points as surely to the need to cut. When, in your ill-fated romance, you’re captivated by the offending words, you may love the passage for the wrong reasons. Somewhere deep inside you know this but still balk and will go to astonishing lengths to hold onto your love:
                        * Have you already started an angry letter to the top writing magazine                                        denouncing the rigidity of writing rules? 
                        * Would you gladly rewrite your entire piece to preserve this passage?
                        * Would you throw out everything but the passage and start something                                        completely new around it?
If you’re wildly nodding in the affirmative to any of these questions, you’re in trouble.
            You’ve been swept up in an idolizing haze, blinded to your loved one’s flaws. Precisely because you’ve worked so hard, you can’t admit that this passage is awkward, wordy, overwritten, repetitive, obvious, forced, self-conscious, cute, contradictory to the prevailing tone, or just not necessary. If love really blinds you, you may refuse to see that the adored words don’t even say what you mean.
            I speak from sad experience. Recently, as I snuck up on the planned final version of an essay, I glanced at the opening sentence. Having reworked it countless times over many weeks, I was particularly enamored by its witty originality and sparkling
alliteration. Only now, as I stared in shock, did it dawn that this all-important sentence said the exact opposite of what I wanted to convey!
            First I cursed. Next I raged. Then I rationalized. Finally, I sighed, scrapped my final-emailing plans, and with anguished heart bid the sentence a teary and inevitable adieu. For the next two hours I rewrote the entire first paragraph.
            My heart mending, I became better able to distinguish these body-mind-emotions touchstones for breaking with the too-loved passage. As you reach greater comfort with them, you too will become a courageous, if still sorrowful, cutter. Here are some suggestions to help you ease the pain of parting, comfort your soul, and get you through the night.
            1. Save the passage. Put it in a file labeled “Lost Loves,” “Deleted Darlings,” “Cut But Not Forgotten,” or something equally bittersweet.
            2. Tell yourself—repeatedly—how much better your piece is without the passage. 
            3. Compliment yourself—extravagantly—for being such a tough and incisive editor. Think how proud your mother would be, and your old English teacher. 
            4. Walk out and leave the piece alone, at least for a day. You’re not abandoning it but resting your brain and letting your subconscious simmer without interference. Gloria Burke advises, “Put the piece away for a few days, then take it out and psyche yourself up by saying, ‘I’m going to look at this with fresh eyes.’”[vii] It’s eternally mysterious how and why this works. But to leave what we’re immersed in and go do something entirely different gives us the distance and objectivity we need to become heartless cutters.
            5. If the hole left by cutting still seems unfillable, or you can’t nudge out a decent transition, just start writing. You’ll be able to use whatever emerges in this or another piece. To get going, I sometimes retype the previous sentence or paragraph. Then let your mind tell you what comes next. Believe these two wise lines, which, in addition to a favorite psalm, I use to calm and reassure my writing self. The lines are by the American poet Richard Wilbur:
                        Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
                        Something will come to you.[viii]     
Even if you’re convinced that what comes out is bilge, keep writing. Soon you’ll cut this too and the right words will surface.
            6. To reduce future traumas of passionate obsession, read good literature. Notice the conciseness and freshness.
            7. As you read less than the best literature, write down the clich├ęs and other candidates for cutting. This list should help you spot them in your own current work and avoid them in later drafts.
            8. With your new sensitivity, you can now read your manuscripts with a more critical eye. Amoss and Suben recommend combing them for overused adjectives, stock phrases, “wordy, boring explanations,” and adverbs that don’t convey anything new.[ix]  
            9. Praise yourself—highly—for having finally developed that precious and elusive faculty all writers covet, editorial distance.
         10. If you’re still mourning your lost love, keep in mind that someday, somewhere, in some enchanted work time, that rejected passage may reappear. As you revise another piece, it may float into your head, and you’ll rapturously find that, with only the slightest adjustment, your old love will turn out to be exactly what you needed. Think of the reunion!
So take heart. Practice distancing yourself from your work and you’ll develop that needed mix of editorial ruthlessness and intuitive creativity. You’ll critique, delete, and revise with fewer pangs of emotional separation and debilitating tantrums. Listen to your inner heartfelt messages. You’ll become your own best editor and employ heartless but not unbearable cutting to produce work that’s more polished and professional and therefore more often accepted.

            [i]D. M. Thomas, “On Literary Celebrity,” New York Times Magazine, June 13, 1982, p. 29.
[ii]Samuel Johnson, in Quotationary, ed. Leonard Roy Frank (New York: Random House, 2001), p. 956.
            [iii]Gloria Burke, “The Four R’s of Freelancing: Refocus, Rework, Rewrite, and Recycle,” 2003 Writer’s Market, ed. Kathryn Struckel Brogan (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002), p. 33.
            [iv]Jean Rosenbaum and Veryl Rosenbaum, The Writer’s Survival Guide (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1982), p. 65.  
[v]William Faulker, quoted in The Web’s Most Humongous Collection of Writing Quotes,
            [vi] Bertha Amoss and Eric Suben, Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books for Publication: Two Perspectives (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1995), p. 96.
            [vii]Burke, “The Four R’s of Freelancing,” p. 33.
            [viii]Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep,” in Walking to Sleep, New Poems and Translations (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), p. 1, lines 3-4. 
            [ix] Amoss and Suben, p. 47.

Bio: Noelle Sterne is a nonfiction and fiction writer, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, with over 250 pieces in print and online venues. Her Ph.D. is Columbia University, and Noelle has conducted an academic coaching and editing practice for over 28 years. In her new book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, Summer 2011), she uses examples from her practice and other aspects of life in applying practical spirituality to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle’s website at


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Noelle. Thank you so much for this piece today - I so related to it! I have a good friend who edits for me, and I often think about how she describes a weak passage - "It's like there's a movie in my head, and when the film stutters, I know something's not quite right." I also recognize that sinking feeling... oh, boy.

After writing fifteen books, I'm rewriting/polishing the first two books in my LeGarde series for reprinting with my current publisher. I just came across a chapter where I "narrated" a scene. Lazy, lazy writing. I just rewrote it and showed it with dialog and actions to go with it. How we change over time, and thank goodness our writing improves!

Have a Happy Fourth of July.

Ron Adams said...

Excellent advice well written. Thanks for stopping by Noelle. Like Aaron, I am re-editing my first novel for release with my current publisher, and the editor came back with 3 paragraphs of praise and 3 pages of changes! It has been the hardest work I've everdone, chopping and hacking in response to what I consider a well-intentioned, dispassionate critique from a gentleman I asked to help me make the work better than it was originally. Sigh. The good news of it is I am a better writer now, I think, and have a better perspective on the art, craft and business of writing, and if the readers can get that process through your ideas, they will be so much further ahead.

Have a happy, safe and sane July

Kim Smith said...

Man, Noelle. This one hits me between the eyes. I need to learn that distance thing, badly.

thank you for being our guest today.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Noelle:

Thank you SO much for posting this. What a great treasure trove of advice. Love it.

Hope everyone enjoys a happy and safe holiday!