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Why ‘When in Doubt, Cut it Out!’ Should Be the Motto All Creative Writers Embrace

“It is easy,” Michelangelo famously said about his creative process. “You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” 

Creative writing is absolutely nothing like sculpting. You start with a blank slate. As you fill that void, fueled by hours of creative flow punctuated by periods of writer’s block, it’s only normal to begin to feel at home in the world you have just conjured. It’s only normal to ache to keep building it, and to feel like something of a butcher every time you even just consider taking something away. 

Before you know it, your writing — now filled with complex sentences and scenes designed to bring your text to life — becomes cluttered and distracting. That’s why every creative writer can benefit from this sculptor’s advice. “When it doubt, cut it out”. Chip away the words that don’t fit into the story, and then go back to kill the words that don’t add anything. Learn from the minimalists; declutter your writing until every word has found a home and your whole project sparks joy.

Whether you are writing an essay or a novel, you’ll at the very least have the opportunity to tidy your writing up a little. Almost always, you’ll discover that, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, the “omitted part would strengthen the story”. Naturally wordy creative writers should consider adding a separate “backspace edit” to their creative process, but even if you don’t go that far, you may be surprised at the results you get if you are a little more willing to cut things out. 

What should you consider as you decide what to cut out during your self-editing process as a creative writer?

Could you effectively convey the same message in fewer words?

At the basic proofreading level, you can simply ask yourself if you can effectively say the same thing in fewer words by removing repetition and clunky wordy choices — in turn forcing you to think about your sentences more intently. As this is the least painful part of “when it doubt, cut it out”, it’s a good place to start. 

Next, target your adjectives and adverbs

As a creative writer, you’ll use adjectives and adverbs to liven up your story, especially if you’ve taken the advice to show rather than tell to heart. Sometimes, you’ll find that you’ve been overdoing that a bit — so see which flowery words can head for the chopping board. 

Examine your side characters

If you are writing a novel, short story, or play, chances are that not all of the characters included in your work truly deserve a place there. Side characters should serve a purpose — they might act as a foil, a learning opportunity for the protagonist, fill in a gap, or offer a way to provide crucial background information. If any of your characters aimlessly wander in and out of your story, without influencing the plot in any meaningful way, they may have to go.

Finally, put your plot points under the knife

Just as your characters should should seamlessly fit into the story you are telling, the journey your main characters take can get too cluttered if there are too many detours. If it doesn’t contribute to the plot, no matter how hard you worked on a particular section, you may just find that you gain, rather than lose, by simply taking it out. 

Does that sound a little harsh to you? Creative writers who just aren’t ready to start chipping away at their hard work yet, fearing that they’ll end up with a dry and sterile text, can take comfort in the fact that writing is a whole lot more flexible than sculpting. If you need to, copy/paste your work into an entirely new document. Start experimenting with relentless deletions, cutting out everything you are not 100 percent sure about, and see what you end up with. 

You may discover that entirely new scenes now need to be added. You may hate the result and go back to your original. You may also end up with perfectly tidy writing in which every character, every scene, every word have a goal. No matter what, you’ll soon realize you’ve become a better writer after going through this process.