One of my writing mentors taught a technique she called “Pruning the Deadwood” as an editing tool. “What is “deadwood?” you might be asking. It’s anything that distracts from your main message. Here’s an example sentence from my writing, when I was paring down a 750-word character sketch to 250 words for a Flash Fiction Contest entry:
She wants to do something out of her ordinary. Maybe – dare she think it – something unplanned. Like just get into the car and drive off with a few items of clothing and her credit card. Nothing booked, no itinerary, no big ideas about where to go.
Here’s how it reads, post-editing:
She fantasizes about doing something out of her ordinary like starting a fight with a supervisor, or leaving everything she’s constructed behind, taking only her credit card.
Can you hear and feel the difference in the final piece? I knew I wanted to communicate how much Selena is longing to make changes. Something so beyond “her ordinary” that it would shock everyone around her. Knowing my protagonist this well supported the editing process.
I’ve learned about the power of a single word in a piece of writing through my daily practice of writing Haiku. In the classical form, all I have to work with is 17 syllables in 3 lines: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. In order to create a haiku that conveys exactly what I want, I need to have a clear vision. This lesson has been transferred to all my writing, no matter what the genre.
In the contest entry example above, original version, the first sentence reads: She wants to do …. Now check out how the final version begins and notice the difference: She fantasizes about …. Selena is more likely to be day-dreaming, probably confused by the unfamiliar impulses arising in her life.
Just as I’m using my writing in this post to illustrate the process, I do the same in my writing circles. In one recent gathering, where participants are working on creating longer manuscripts, we did a deep dive into pruning the deadwood. One of my students wrote to me later with this response to the class:
I have enjoyed seeing the evolution of this piece and thank-you for your vulnerability in sharing it. It has been a demonstration in being open to feedback, showing us how to improve a work without leaving anything out in the process and in fact tightening it up, so I can see how much is conveyed in so few words. Amazing!