Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The minimum effective dose for writers

leave a comment »

Timothy Ferriss

Writers, for the most part, work very hard at what they do, but there are times when you just want to fix a story without a lot of trouble. Let’s say you’ve written something that has the core of a good idea and some interesting scenes, but it still lies dead on the page, and rather than try a full rewrite, you’d like to make a handful of focused, straightforward changes that will help it get past an editor’s desk. What you’re looking for, basically, is the minimum effective dose, as memorably articulated by the self-help guru Tim Ferriss, who rightly annoys a lot of people, but who displays a sort of genius for marketing such solutions to certain kinds of Type A personalities. (I admit that I’ve bought a couple of his books.) For writers, the minimum effective dose for a story usually means cutting it, both because cutting is a good thing, and because paring a story down to its workable core is easier, and often more productive, than adding new material. And what I’ve found from my own experience is that a story that took months to research and write can be improved dramatically over the course of a weekend by following a few simple rules:

1. Cut at least ten percent. Yes, I’ve spoken about this many times before, but only because it’s the single most useful piece of writing advice I know. There’s rarely a story that couldn’t be improved with some judicious cutting, and the ten percent rule offers a useful target, although the magic number is often even higher. My novelette “The Boneless One,” which was turned down by every magazine that saw it before going on to a fair amount of success, would never have seen print if I hadn’t cut it down substantially, and that goes double for my novels. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that originally included close to a quarter of a million words of material, and after multiple revisions, it’s now more like 95,000 words long, and I miss surprisingly little of what I’ve excised. Usually, it takes some time away from a project—let’s say four weeks or so—before you have the detachment you need to cut it down properly, but with practice, you can will yourself into the necessary state of objectivity after taking a day or two to cool down. Stephen King, who could probably stand to cut more these days, says of learning this rule: “Good things started to happen for me shortly thereafter.” And they can happen for you, too.

A page from my rough draft

2. Trim anything that seems longer than average. Here “anything” can refer to a chapter, a scene, or even a single paragraph. Every story consists of a certain number of units distributed around some average length, and in general, the ones that exceed the mean are the ones you should target first. This isn’t an absolute rule, of course: some scenes are longer than others for a reason. But it never hurts to go through a story, page by page, to see if any segment stands out as unusually wordy. You can take a visual approach by flipping through the manuscript with an eye peeled for overlong paragraphs or passages of description, or, if you’re really obsessive about it, you can work out exactly how many words your average chapter runs and focus on pruning the outliers. This is the method I’ve called writing by numbers, and which Aaron Hamburger recommended recently in the New York Times. If it sounds mechanical, it is—but it’s surprising how often a mechanical approach results in a smoother draft, or at least one that allows the reader to fall into the rhythm of the story without being distracted by bumps along the way. Later, if you must, you can restore the bumps you like best, which give a story its texture and variety. But until you’ve made the cuts first, you’ll never know if you’ll miss them.

3. Throw out beginnings and endings. I’ve spoken before about how useful it can be to cut the first and last paragraphs of scenes that aren’t working, or, even better, to jump from middle to middle in the first place. Most scenes start with a few lines that the author writes to ease himself into the day’s work, and these can almost always be cut with profit. At this point, I’ve started cutting the first and last paragraphs of each chapter as a matter of course, just to see how it looks, in full knowledge that I can always put them back later. And it doesn’t just work with individual scenes. Storytellers from Frank Capra to David Mamet have spoken about the importance of burning the first reel, and it’s surprising how often a story can be improved by throwing out what seemed like an indispensable opening page. As long as you’re good about saving your drafts, there’s no harm in trying it. Similarly, with endings, you usually want to get out fast, which means you need to cut more brutally here than anywhere else. To my eye, as published, the last two chapters of City of Exiles run a little long, and although they seemed fine at the time, I’ve since learned to cut my closing scenes to the point of discomfort, knowing I’ll be glad I did a year from now. And since there’s no point in prolonging a post about cutting, I may as well end this one here.

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: