The Writer’s Best Friend is the Trashcan

[I’ve recently come to realize that I have just 10 or so simple mottos for writing that I often bring to mind. I came to see this in the course of thinking about the coming retirement of a friend who planted one of the mottos. As a way of sharing what I know about writing, little though that might be, I plan to add occasional posts to this blog that explore these mottos that have served me.]

“The writer’s best friend is the trashcan,” said the novelist I would never knowingly encounter again.

I heard him speak this line when I was 20 or so. I showed up the way the rest of the small audience had shown up. A collection of young people adequately interested in writing to offer part of an afternoon had come to pepper the seats in an unnecessarily large auditorium in order to hear a published novelist speak. He was no one I knew; his work was unfamiliar. I immediately forgot his name and I am not sure I even heard the title(s) of his book(s). But I should have remembered, because this one line—which he said matter-of-factly, simply in response to an audience member’s question—has remained with me and has been a touchstone of mine ever since. I owe that novelist my gratitude. His offhand comment about the writer’s craft still comes to mind and still serves me nearly 30 years later.

There are two broad ways for a writer to be immature: writing too little and writing too much. The former stage is a big stage; it includes the elementary-school writer who adds “very, very, very” to adjectives to try to pad out the length of her assignment. This same stage also includes the adult who makes an assertion within a professional report that, unbeknownst to him, puzzles every reader of the report except the people very close to him who already know what he means. This stage of immaturity as a writer includes just about everyone who doesn’t want to be a writer, whose gifts are found elsewhere, but who nevertheless has to write from time to time.

The second stage of immaturity is also big. A working, professional writer can function within it and might spend much of a career here. This stage of immaturity sees the writer routinely standing in her own way by giving too much of the energy of her attention to the sentences and paragraphs she has composed rather than the meaning she aims to convey. The meaning is obviously the point of writing, and if that meaning can be delivered with a short piece as well as it can be with a long one, then shorter is better—we all know this much. But in the trenches, it can be very difficult to see which of the passages you yourself have written is not essential to the task at hand.

I became aware I was leaving that second era of immaturity once I found myself cutting complete paragraphs or series of paragraphs from my own writing and doing so with glee. Reading a draft of my work in hard copy, I would see a passage I suddenly realized was an unnecessary side road, and I would draw a great X through that span of text as a mark of victory. Hurray, I had done a favor for the reader! I had saved the reader the effort and distraction of reading that part. When we write a draft, this is necessarily an exploratory exercise. We proceed by feel to find the way to the message. But since the reader does not need to see our entire exploration, not everything in the draft should survive. Writing well involves judgment about what to leave out every bit as much as it involves judgment about what to leave in.

What do I leave out? I leave out anything that can clear the way for the main point of the piece to shine more clearly. Anything that requires the reader to give thought to something other than the main point. I leave out any obstacle such as this that I can see. Passages I cut include elaborate defenses against quibbles the reader is unlikely to raise. They include elaborate descriptions of implications that could be addressed with just one line instead. A passage I might see to cut also includes (here is the big one) the discourse that feels necessary only because it scratches an itch I want to scratch, including asserting a point of view I want to champion or sharing something else I learned in the course of researching the piece, even though the intended point of the piece can do just fine and would even do better without this digression.

How do I leave this stuff out? How do I cut it from my drafts? The answer gets to the weirdest part: I do so by means of a split personality. To grow as a writer is to get better and better at being one’s own reader. And getting better in this way specifically means becoming more effective at shutting off the memory of having written the words in order to receive the work as a stranger would receive it. The capacity is nothing less than dualism—being a writer first, then shifting into a different frame of perception in order to be the reader who can aid this writer.

I don’t know the way to obtain this dualism except with practice. Let yourself see yourself cutting your self’s own work. Let it keep on seeing this. The dualism will develop.

One of the most telling indicators of what to cut is this: the passage in which the “reader” part of my dualism is getting bored. Even with the split personality, I am the reader who is the most invested in my work as a writer. If I myself am not interested in what I have written, no one else will be.

Sometimes the writer part of me will protest the reader’s cuts, so there are tactics. I use the “Save As” command rather than “Save.” I will make my cuts within version 2 of a document while preserving the earlier draft in version 1. This leaves me an out in case I later decide the cuts were a dreadful mistake. (I never decide this.) For large passages I cut, I paste the removed passage in its entirety into a separate document so I can keep that glorious passage and return to make use of it later. (I never return to make use of it later.)

In writing for a print publication, sometimes I have to cut to match the precise space available in the layout. Here, it is not the split-personality reader urging my cuts. Here, the writing has already met the split-personality reader’s approval, and I am cutting it still further. The cutting in this case might produce a work that is less effective and less clear than the slightly longer original. The out I have in this case is the “online version”; I can allow the online version of the piece to use the better, longer version of the text. However, as the print version comes to sit with me, I discover something strange: If I did manage to make my point successfully within the 490 words allowable rather than the 517 words of the previously finished piece, then the 490-word version dawns on me as being the better version, even if I wasn’t able to see this at first.

If it can be cut, it should be cut. Our development as writers involves getting better at seeing what can be shed, what can be left out, what didn’t have to be picked up in the first place. The great writer is one who, among other things, recognizes the great scope and extent of all that need not be written.