One of the hardest things about writing is becoming attached to phrases or ideas that have no business in our stories. They don’t really fit. Some part of us probably knows this, but we just can’t let it go.
We are often thinking: “[But] it’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, I tell you! Genius, I say!” (Name that movie). But, the truth is, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter how awesome it is. It will confuse our readers and take away from the main point of the story. Every time we keep something that just doesn’t fit, it weakens our writing as a whole. This is one reason it is so important to have people read and critique our work. We can’t always see that it isn’t working, but an outside observer often can.
The next obstacle is that we often tend to think our writing is our baby, so when someone tells us something isn’t working, we think they are calling our baby ugly. Sometimes, we can get very offended by a good critique for this reason and just call our critiquers bad names behind their backs. What we should do instead is realize that writing isn’t a baby, and even if it were, it needs to change and grow to become the best it can. Taking parts out is more like a haircut, not an amputation (even if it’s painful like one).
So, how do we decide what to take out? That is the difficult question. I often think of The Lord of the Rings movies. They did a brilliant job of staying true to Tolkien’s books, but they still cut out some pretty major parts. One thing I was disappointed about initially was that the whole section about Tom Bombadil was not in the movie. Peter Jackson said that he had to keep asking himself if each part moved the action of the plot along. If it didn’t, he had to take it out even if he loved it, because otherwise the movie would be too long. (This is not to say that Tolkien should have left out that section. It is an important part of Frodo’s journey, but it doesn’t get the ring to Mount Doom, so it becomes more of a support to the very main point of the story).
When rewriting, I often have another Word document for keeping all my brilliant ideas and phrases that don’t fit. This way, I’m not getting rid of them. I’m just keeping them in a safe place in case I can use them later in what I’m writing now. Maybe I won’t use it in this story at all, but I’ll have it for another one later. Sometimes it’s just a couple of words that make a fantastic image; sometimes it’s pages and pages of work. But, if I’m not positive it is moving my plot along, I take it out, at least for a while, to see if the story can live without it. As the other writers of this blog can attest, I don’t always want to do this. Tasha noted one time after the third or so time I tried fitting one part into a section of my novel, “You really want to keep that part, don’t you?” indicating it was time to let it go. I just laughed, “Yes, I do!” and then finally relented.