Producing quality writing depends on successfully wielding two opposing forces: creation and destruction (addition and subtraction; expansion and reduction). On the one hand, you have to make it. On the other, in the process of making it, you have to let go of some of what you’ve made.
Unsurprisingly, the letting-go part of the process seldom gets its due. Writers refer to it as “killing your darlings” or “the cutting room floor.” Though the pain of the effort is communicated through verbs like “kill” and “cut,” it is a fundamental part of producing quality writing.
In fact, journalist Kevin Sullivan, in conversation with journalist Chip Scanlon cites it as the best writing advice he’s ever received: “Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut.”
It’s hard to let go of our brilliant turns of phrase, or our tightly crafted paragraphs. It’s harder to let go of whole narrative arcs. But Sullivan confirms that quality writing requires us to recognize that what we’ve created will almost always benefit from what we can cut.
To make it easier, save your cuttings as clips. The benefit is practical—you can consult your clips to develop new darlings. It’s also emotional—you can keep what’s not currently required, saving it for another creation.
Books are big projects. They require time and effort and can be consequently quite difficult to complete. Many (many) writers have to work hard just to make the time that allows us to put forth the effort.
So, when we finish a draft of a big-project book, we want to be done—done with the time-finding and done with the effort-expending. We want to be done done. Yet, despite the meaning of “finished,” a finished draft is never The End.
Instead, it’s usually the beginning of implementing the big changes that move a draft from finished to accepted. Big changes are often suggested by critical readers, developmental editors, or hands-on agents and often include the following:
Too long: The book needs to be significantly shortened
Too much: The book needs to be broken into two or more projects
Too general: A specific audience needs to be identified as the book’s target readers
Too oblique: The argument needs to be obvious and integrated
Too weak: The argument requires more, specific, primary, secondary, or other evidence
Too confusing: The argument needs to be positioned as the impetus of organization
Suggestions like these can feel big—too big. It can be overwhelming and demoralizing for authors to realize that their manuscript requires even more time and effort for completion.
But big changes don’t always translate to big effort. Revision, even major revision, is far easier to complete than the hard labor of producing the draft.
In the same way that carvinga stone is challenging, while mining stone is backbreaking, shaping a draft into manuscript form is part of the process of artistry. Once the backbreaking work of creation is finished, refinement often feels like relief.
Authors asked to implement big changes can take heart: The request is often a testament to the reader’s confidence in the author’s craft.
How have we come to live with the arrow of death in our collective heart, asks Elizabeth Dias in a recent New York Times essay. In the aftermath of the shooting of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, as well asthe nearly 20 mass shootings that have occurred since then, the question is painfully relevant.
Yet, right now, we don’t need answers. We already know that Senators and Representatives, mostly Republican, insist—over the will of most Americans—on frictionless access to guns. We also know that gun manufacturers, gun lobbyists, and others who benefit from the easy access to guns work relentlessly to associate guns with a violent brand of freedom and protection.
There are other answers, too. But, right now, they don’t matter. Right now, all that matters is that wepull out the arrow.
To do so requires our collective action, which is hard. At its base, collective action asks us to recognize others as precious—precious in ways we don’t understand, precious in ways we can’t articulate—precious beyond words.
Is it ironic that communal power depends on individual respect, even reverence? Maybe. But, according to Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, it’s a reflection of a simple spiritual truth: Each person, every one of us, contains the whole world.
We may not be aware of it, but we already understand this truth. Our feelings of wrenching despair, of agonized abandonment after such brutality testify to our recognition. We sense that we’ve squandered preciousness. We grasp, however lightly, that we’ve lost the whole world.
We sense, too, that we cannot wrest it back. But if we pull out the arrow, we can at least start to heal.
“But is it publishable?” For writers of half-ademic books, it’s a common refrain. The manuscript’s “half” status can feel like the source of trouble, causing writers to question manuscript viability.
It’s true that it’s challenging to publish a book that doesn’t neatly fit into an identifiable genre. However, genre adherence is not usually the answer to the viability question.
Rather, when doubts arise about a manuscript’s publishing potential, the cause is more often the writer’s sense of an ambiguous diffuseness in their story.
To provoke a sharper focus, editors and readers typically ask, so what? As in, so what if people feel bad and sad about climate change? So what if kids in special education classrooms don’t receive comprehensive sex education? So what if our genes matter more—but also much less—than we typically assume?
So what? is an economically efficient editorial tool. It’s also an effective imperative to articulate an argument’s strongest expression. When you answer your manuscript’s so what?, you identify your manuscript’s reason-for-being.
However, writers of half-ademic books often have answers to the so what?. They already know their manuscript’s reason-for-being. In these cases, it’s not answers but questions that are required.
The order of operations for writing a book doesn’t always proceed logically. Consequently, writers, and especially writers of half-ademic books, who are writing out of an academic tradition, offer subtle and complicated answers to questions that they have never actually articulated. This frequently results in an obliqueness, or what I above refer to as a diffuseness, that fuels writers’ doubts.
In these cases, the necessary fit is not between manuscript and genre, but between the manuscript’s answers and the unasked questions driving exploration. Articulating these questions creates space for the answers, and for the manuscript that contains them.
Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.
The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable.
It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing.
Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)
Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.
Mass isn’t just “‘stuff’ that things can be made out of,” according to University of Copenhagen particle physicist, Matt von Hippel. Rather, mass is what “a high energy of interaction looks like.”
Von Hippel has a provocative way with words. His claim that mass is energy you haven’t met yet refers to the surprise that, in particle physics, mass is less “stuff” and more a consequence of energy. A proton’s mass, for example, far exceeds the weight of its component quarks. It’s the energy of interaction, according to Von Hippel, that accounts for the extra weight.
His argument should certainly be isolated to its applied field, but it’s too provocative for detainment. When broadly considered against the relationship between parts and wholes, it offers interesting insights. Take, for instance, a book. Intense interactive energy is required to transmute letters, pixels, papers, and ink, glue, and binding into something as weighty as a story. The book in our hands barely compares to the narrative it provokes in our heads.
As in the relationship between a proton and its quarks, the relationship between words and story is not commensurate. Word count accounts for neither a book’s mass nor a story’s heft. Perhaps this is because a book is less a product of the stuff out of which it’s made than a product of the energetic interactions that result in its story.
Elsewhere, writing about the relationship between synchronization and the speed of light, von Hippel points out that our knowledge of the world depends entirely on the models we build to bridge perceptions and our memories. Another name for these models? Stories. Here again, insights from particle physics are relevant, but we already know how much the mass of such stories matters.
WOBF allows you to explore the outer reaches of the public domain with the random search terms of your choice. Of course, your terms hardly matter. The non-congruence between what you seek and what you find is part of the point. Whether you input “infinity,” “twilight,” “anemone,” or “ballet,” your choice will help you search, and perhaps discover, a scrap of the internet’s originary chanciness. Use it, and find the books for which you never knew to search.
Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.
But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.
Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.
To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.
For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.
Here in Minnesota, winter has—emphatically—returned. As I marked the occasion with a frigid run, my mind wandered from the slippery but well-worn route, to the inscrutably repetitious new year, to the ominously redundant omicron variant.
It was surprisingly pleasant going, though, because I listened to Slate’s Political Gabfest. There, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson discussed a provocative conundrum: When is it okay to critique a friend’s creative efforts?
The initial, unanimous response? Never!
But as they talked over variations on the theme, their answers began to shift:
Well, probably never…if you want to retain your relationship.
Perhaps sometimes…if they’re particularly successful or are particularly solicitous.
Probably yes…if you’re a partner responsible for heading off potential embarrassment.
Definitely yes…in fact, you’re obligated.
The move from “you can’t” to “you must” depended both on the creative effort and on the relationship between creator and critic: Ultimately, critique was deemed necessary when the effort was writing and the critic an editor.
Writing requires a critical reader, argued Plotz, because writing is iterative.
Iteration, a kind of repetition, makes iterative a felicitous adjective because writing requires repetition on both abstract and practical levels. When we write, we not only reproduce what we know; we also engage in mechanical reproduction—writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, asking others to read, rewriting, rereading, asking others to reread, then rewriting again.
It’s challenging, sometimes agonizing work, but modern iteration differs from rote repetition by its invocation of forward momentum. Iteration isn’t only repetition; it’s repetition toward refinement, toward a “desired result.”
Iteration is consequently an apt word for the work of writing. It’s also, possibly, an appropriate word for the work ahead.
In 2022, we face the same virus, the same intractable government and community responses, the same political rigidity, the same individual and collective challenges to childcare, school, and work, not to mention healthcare and other basic needs. The repetition itself feels like an inescapable, isolating trap.
The language of iteration might help us conceive of a way out.
The gentle onomatopoeia in iterative means the word requires repetition for its completion. Like winter, like running, like writing, iterative work is repetitious work. However—and also like winter, like running, like writing—the repetition can reach beyond equivalence. Though 2022 is already a repetitive year, it doesn’t have to be the same as what preceded it.
Have you read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal? The story is gentle and kind, its pictures tender and sincere. It has quieted many a rambunctious child in my own chaotic house.
Aiming for classic status for Amos, the Steads approach their work not in terms of the risks they like to take but of the limitations they like to impose: “‘We didn’t want to necessarily be that rigid,’ says Philip Stead. ‘But…there’s something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project.'”
He refers to the deliberately defined color palette by which Erin Stead’s images, so delicate and precise, become durable. But he makes a more universal point. Limitations, parameters, and boundaries can be a conduit to creation.
We often perceive limitations as restrictions holding us back or obstacles keeping us from our goals. But limitations–certainly of color, form, and genre, but also of time, desire and will–can stimulate inventive solutions.
We see this at work in haikus, sonnets, villanelles (poetry in general), which raise expressions of limitations, or perhaps limited expressions, to an art form. But it’s a more flexibly applicable technique.
The task of creation is challenging, in part because the galaxy of invention is so vast. When everything is possible, it’s hard to make anything real. If we can choose all things, how can we settle on, much less commit to developing, any one thing?
But of course choices (usually) must be made. Decisions are very often required. In some cases, it can be surprisingly useful to narrow, even artificially, our choices. The Steads chose to limit their story to the subject of kindness and to restrict their color palette to “muted yellows, greens, blues and reds.” Other writers might find the imposition of a genre or a deadline a useful, even necessary, constraint.
It’s true that a limitation can be a hindrance. It’s also true that it can sometimes be a provocation.