Sunday, November 4, 2012

Writing, Cutting, Polishing a Manuscript

Effective writing takes both time and effort. It can, however, be a labor of love. At least that’s what it is for me. When I write, I feel centered and aware of Presence. For me, writing is a form of prayer. So today I’d like to share with you my method of writing/praying a story or an extended manuscript.
            In 1989, I channeled the manuscript that was later published as A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story. Originally, Dulcy gave me 42,000 words. In 1991, Jane Meara, an exceptional Crown editor, asked me to cut the manuscript in half by concentrating only on the relationship between Dulcy and me. The result was Dulcy’s first book. The words I deleted became the main part of Dulcy’s second book: A Cat’s Legacy: Dulcy’s Story.

 The scene reflects what the first draft of anything I write looks like.

            The key to cutting was the word relationship. With that word I was able to ruthlessly delete extraneous words and incidents from the original draft. We writers need something to keep us grounded in the thrust of what we are writing. That something may be a keyword or it may be a question, such as “What did the character do that led to this or that effect?” Or “What do I need here so as to build suspense?”
            In an earlier posting, I explained that for thirteen years I’ve worked on a novel that takes place in first-century Palestine. The first draft of that novel boasted 212,000 words. Ultimately, I deleted 86,000 of them. How did I cut so many? By repeatedly asking myself, “Is this word, incident, character necessary to telling the story?” “Does it advance the plot?” “Does it build suspense?” “Does it show the reader something necessary?”
            I simply kept chipping around at the rock formation of the manuscript until I arrived at the “sculpture” that revealed scene, plot, character. Something like the photograph below.

A sculptured face that illustrates the classic Veracruz culture of 600 to 900 CE.
(From Wikipedia)

            As with Dulcy, I tend to be wordy. My writing style is to simply sit at the computer and let the words come—willy-nilly. I write until I’m written out. Word after word. Scene after scene. Lines of dialogue followed by more dialogue.
            I do that in writing my on-line memoir. Often, I’ll write 1,200 words on a Wednesday morning. Then I’ll assiduously cut to fewer than 600 words. Thus, I need two and a half hours to write, polish, and edit a story and then a half hour to select photographs and post. Three hours in all.
            And yet Friko, a blogger whom I read faithfully because I enjoy her attitude toward life, once shared that she needed only twenty minutes to write a posting. My first attempts simply aren’t that good. I must decide what is the essence of the story from my life: what do I hope to communicate? Then I must delete every superfluous word no matter how clever or revealing it is. Anything that does not advance the story to its ending has to go.
            I try to do the same with this blog. I ask myself, “Does this word, phrase, sentence help explain my topic?” If it doesn’t, it’s deleted.
            Now, how about you? Do you write everything down and then judiciously delete? What’s your secret of success?

I hope you’ll share the crafting of this blog with me. Let me know with your comments what you’d like me to write about. One of you has already requested that I write about the use of which instead of that as well as the use of commas. I hope to write that post soon, perhaps as early as next Sunday.

“Landscape with Trees” by adamr from


  1. I fall somewhere between you and Friko. It takes me about an hour to craft a post, and I really try to be less wordy on my DJan-ity blog than on my Eye on the Edge blog. I allow myself more leeway on Sunday mornings, and I also allow more stream of consciousness.

    But I always, always read through before posting, then reread after posting, and most always I modify and delete places that don't flow like they did when I was writing them down. Often my husband will offer a critique when he reads a post. Fortunately we can edit our posts long after putting them out there.

    BTW, I haven't served on a jury yet this week, or even been called to the courthouse. I have one more week of possible selection. I won't know until tonight if I will be called tomorrow or not.

    1. Dear DJan, I wish the cats were willing to offer me a critique of what I write! Unfortunately there aren't even any gremlins here to stir the mix. I'm glad your husband offers his critique. I think that always helps.

      You mentioned working to get your words/thoughts to flow. I tend to read out loud what I write and see if its flows. I have a good ear for cadence. That has helped me a lot with my writing.

      Thanks for the info about the jury duty. Peace.

  2. I write using DJan's method. When I write, I do a post in about an hour, just putting down anything that pops into my mind (although I work from a copious amount of notes), then go back & edit later. Since I tend to babble, sometimes I make a lot of changes. I have posts scheduled to run into next May so I find myself constantly rereading & reediting them. Anything that has lost the ability to amuse me GOES out!

    1. Dear Fishducky, you have an extremely fertile mind, especially for humor. It's that sense you have of the ridiculous that I've mentioned before. It serves you so well with your posts. Peace.

  3. I'm probably closer to you than to Friko except in occasional, spur-of-the-moment posts, Dee. I have to have an idea, or even just a ttle, then I will mostly mull it over until I have a clearer idea of what I want to say. Sometimes I draft with pen and paper, but more often now on the screen. Unlike you, I tend to build up a post, paragraph by paragraph, rather than chipping away to reveal the finished post. Nevertheless it takes time to craft my longer posts and longer still to illustrate them, but its time I don't grudge.

    1. Dear Perpetua, I admire people like you who can construct a post or a scene word by word, sentence by sentence. I think that doesn't work for me because of my editing background. I worked for curriculum publishers for thirty-five years and I continue to do an occasional editing project. What that means for me is that if I edit my work as I write, I get caught up in polishing and never finish the piece. Moreover I only know what my story is by writing it all down. I find out what I think when I finish the first draft. Peace.

  4. I delete in my head as I'm writing. In fact, my writing is usually in my head before I start. A typical blog post takes me about ten minutes. Maybe I'd have more followers if I put more effort into my posts, but posting is MY therapy so I get to use the time as I like.

    Janie, a fast blogger woman

    1. Dear Janie, please see what I wrote to Perpetua in the response above. I don't know what I think until I've written down all my thoughts. Then I see patterns. For both of us, writing serves more than just telling a story. It's prayer for me; it's therapy of you. And who is to say that with either word we're not saying the other. Prayer as therapy; therapy as prayer. Peace.

  5. My blog posts are the only things I write outside of my work. I always try to cut them as close to the bone as I can. I spend about 30 minutes on a post and then hit publish. That sometimes means I am editing after it's been published because I see things that need revision or editing.

    I loved reading your process, and somehow I think that's the best way- get it all out, delete, but then save that deleted material for upcoming pieces.

    I also enjoy the way you learned to write. It is so sound and I would read anything you wrote on that. (I would read anything you wrote, period!)

    1. Dear Shelly, the amazing thing to me about your posts as you explain them in your comment is that I truly have always recognized that you do write close to the bone. You are spare and yet the words you use show us the character of those who people your postings.

      Thanks for letting me know that you like the way I learned. I'll post more about that in the future. And thank you for your confidence in my writing. There are days when I need to hold on to the belief that you and others seem to have about my ability. I've never thought I was a good writer--just an adequate one. And so when you and others say you like my writing, I glow!!!! Peace.

  6. For me, it differs by the post. Some of the longer ones that I'm writing with my professional voice as a therapist take longer -- e.g. my recent post on marriage and retirement was something I made notes on for a month or so and then finally wrote in a few hours -- take more time. And some that I write off the top of my head about something that has inspired me will take less than an hour -- e.g. my current post about my friend Tim. In either case, I do write most of the post at one sitting and then go back and edit it. I'm so impressed with Fishducky's organizational skills! Wow! Posts through next May?? I have about 10-14 posts in development at any given time -- some of them just a one line idea and some partially written, awaiting a piece of information or a picture. I'm so inspired by and interested in your observation, Dee, that you consider writing a form of prayer. I never thought about it that way before!

    1. Dear Kathy, yes, I do agree that different genres and different reasons for writing change the way we write and how long we need to write/edit/polish. Your recent posting on marriage and retirement was a tour de force and I so hope that many of the postings you've done on your blog will become part of a published book. Your words and the way you frame your stories reveal a wisdom that touches all of us who read your posts.

      Unlike you and Fishducky, I have nothing in development. I sit down on Wednesday (blog #1) or Sunday (blog #2) mornings, rest my hands on the keys, center myself in the moment, and wait for the topic. Sometimes the night before I think I have a subject, but the next day, the muses change my course. Today's posting is an example of that. I never meant to write what I wrote. Peace.

  7. Without Dr Kathy's professionalism, I am also a how long is a piece of string blogger. Some posts have been in my head for a while, begging to come out. They need a lot of editing. Others are time related on topics that are dear to my heart. Since I am obsessional, they also need editing. My largely photographic posts take next to no time once I have decided on the topic.
    What would I like you to write about? Anything which shows us more of you. Which I suspect is - write whatever you want to. I will be here.

    1. Dear EC, I so like your imagery of a piece of string. It is as long as it needs to be for the job to be done. And your postings never fail to interest me. Often I find myself sitting and musing after I read your writing. You introduce me to new possibilities.

      Thank you for your encouraging words. The thing is that I mostly never know what I'm going to write. I trust that the words will come when I sit at the computer. That's partly why I say that writing is prayer for me. Peace.

  8. It's amazing how writing can always be polished.
    I once had a teacher who took a famous section of a book--one I thought perfect--and then told us to try making the writing even better.
    I was dubious, but later had to admit that one of my fellow students found flaws and did make that particular section shine even more.
    The teacher noted the improvements, then told us this was an example that no matter who we are we can always condense, use stronger words, and thus become better writers. I'll never forget it.

    1. Dear Elisa, I agree with you and your former teacher that polishing is essential. But for myself I've learned that too much polishing can take the savor out of the piece. It can suck out all the juices of the story. Knowing when to stop is something that I'm still learning.

      After "A Cat's Life" was published in October 1992, I was reading an excerpt from it on Minnesota Public Radio and started editing/polishing as I read aloud! In that reading, I could see how to improve the text. Peace.

  9. I have a basic idea of what I plan to cover in a blog post. First I post the pictures in the order I want them and then just start to write. I work my way slowly to the end--editing as I go--and then go search for a quote. I go through and re-read before I post, but I still miss a mistake or two now and again. It takes me anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours (if I get into telling a life story or am extra chatty). But I'd say the average time is 60-90 minutes.

    I think people have different writing styles. I went to a "master's" writing class one evening at the college that was a discussion on how we wrote (not blogs--LOL!). There were some very different methods. Several people did as you do--sat down and just wrote and wrote--let it all pour out--and then worked on all the editing later. There were people who outlined extensively and had the skeleton of the book or story all planned out before they actually started writing the first sentence. One actually wrote the endings first. A couple wrote scenes and sections kind of willy nilly--not in any kind of order--and then strung them together later. Some people know exactly where they are going and others had no idea.

    I was the only one who constantly edited as I wrote--started at the beginning and progressed slowly to the end. Each day I worked on it I started from the very beginning and edited my way to where I left off. By the time I get to the end it is basically done. I'd leave it sit for a few days and go back over it with a fresh eye one last time. Didn't matter if I was writing a poem or a story or a paper for a college class...that is my method. Your method obviously works for you.

    We also discussed whether we wrote by hand or on computer. I had always written everything by hand and was shocked when I discovered I enjoyed writing on a computer and actually found it easier. (Cut and paste is the best invention ever!) Do you compose on the computer or use pen and paper? I still prefer pen and paper for journaling and letters. Sorry to go on. Just an interesting topic to me. ;)

  10. Dear Rita, I so enjoyed reading your informative comment. Thanks for sharing what you saw and learned in that class. The writer Elizabeth George outlines and plans and does character descriptions and scene descriptions and only then starts to write. She explains all this in her book on writing.

    I so enjoy her books and admire her plots and characterizations, but I could never do all she does. I find all that too tedious. I'm one of those writers who writes to find out what I think. On the first-century Palestine manuscript I've completed, I knew what was going to happen only when it did.

    And yes, I do write everything at the computer because, like you, I think cut and paste is the eighth wonder of the world!!! Peace.

  11. Once again I find myself thinking about your learning style. There are four basic ones. from the blogger responses it is clear we all find our own way to create art.
    You write that you feel centred and in a state of prayer loving what you do. I guess your years of prayer to reach the goal of becoming a nun would have some influence.
    I learned to pray in several languages and more than one faith so for me prayer does not become a part of how I feel while I write. Sometimes I am very passionate about a post but after creating it and reading it I may actually erase the whole thing because I fell it only served as a way for me to vent my own issues. it felt more like a selfish act and not a post ripe for sharing.
    While I tend to be a bit like DJan in getting stuff out and rewriting and polishing later, I do feel that I cut myself off from all that is around me to concentrate but I see that more an act of self indulgence nothing like prayer. I'm doing as I please and am not available to my surroundings, my loved ones. In fact i have been known to become annoyed if I am interrupted while at a point of struggle with the layout of words.

  12. Dear Heindrun, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts on how you write. And I so understand the erasing so as not to simply vent my own feelings. On my most recent posting on my other blog, I did just that and I wonder if posting it wasn't a "selfish act."

    When I say that writing is prayer for me I mean that when I write I become wholly centered within that deep place where Oneness dwells and I feel myself connected to all who have raised me and educated me and befriended me. I feel centered. I feel as if I am in the Presence of the grace that flows through all our lives. None of that probably makes sense because I don't have the words to describe the experience. But I do know that I am experiencing Oneness and Presence when I write. And I am grateful for that.

    And by the way, your grappling with your words and getting annoyed when interrupted reminds me so much of articles I've read about writers. They become immersed, just as you do. You are in good company! Peace.

  13. I have a multitude of Word drafts -- from a few idea words to paragraphs and fully written pieces awaiting editing (some for years.)

    I sometimes write and edit as I go along, but sometimes lose thoughts and ideas. Now I think it best to just write all out wherever it takes me, then go back and edit. Sometimes I end up with a piece totally different from what I thought I was setting out to write, or have two or three pieces in one to separate. I read ALL my posts aloud, maybe several times as part of edit process, before publishing.

    I've never had a creative writing course. I do participate in a small writing group where I've dabbled in some memoir, even less fiction, but toy with expanding some scenes or stories. Mostly I read some of my blog posts -- the only blogger in the group -- they didn't even know what blogs were when I joined. They've had to adjust somewhat to the genre' without fully understanding even now the purpose of my blog -- none read it.

    When I launched my blog accidentally,(after my husband died -- just now realized I had blog anniv. in Oct.) then decided to keep it, I wanted to spend only twenty to thirty minutes writing a publishable composition. I thought I would write whenever time and interest allowed, most likely late in the evening before retiring. I quickly discovered I was unhappy with my compositions and found myself repeatedly editing/re-writing over several hours. Even now, seems I can always edit further everything I've ever written. I spend far more time composing (though I enjoy it) then I would like as other important aspects of life get short shrift.

    I've never really tried to structure writing time,or spend time seeking new, or more specifically appropriate words to make my writing more diverse. That would take even more time, plus then the effort might become work-like, I don't know, -- I want it to be pleasurable. Guess I'm not dedicated enough though I might end up making the process easier for myself.

    The crazy thing is, that when I started blogging I always spoke of "posting a piece" -- said I wasn't interesting in publishing (thinking traditional paper) but -- I am publishing!

    I appreciate your sharing your "cutting" process. Many topics I write often include other subjects associated only in my mind which readers may find distracting. My husband used to become annoyed in the later years of our marriage when I would digress from our casual discussion topic to other associations -- "I'm reminded...," or "I just thought of this...," or "Remember when...." I find that brain function association aspect fascinating, but recognize problems it can create -- not always appropriate.