Method Monday–Ruthless Editing

Red ink is a good thing

Method Monday is a weekly entry about my writing process. Maybe you’ll find something in my process that’s worth adopting. Maybe you have ideas for me. This week, I discuss editing my work ruthlessly. Enjoy.

In my opinion, editing is the most important part of the writing process. No matter how inspired a first draft feels, I know it cannot be my final draft. When I write a first draft, I try to let it flow as freely as possible. It’s more important to me that I get the imagery or ideas on paper than form or mechanics. Those arrive during editing. Something I’ve been working on when editing, and feel may be more important than the editing methodology I use, is ruthlessness.

Being ruthless with one’s own work isn’t always easy. Sometimes I become emotionally attached to specific words, phrases, or lines. I’ve learned the hard way that hanging on to these favorite bits can be fatal to the poem as a whole. Those lines may be great, but insisting that they remain in a poem in which they don’t belong is foolish. Consciously knowing this doesn’t make them easy to cut, but I’m learning. One thing I’ve done to help myself cut more efficiently is create a slush pile, if you will. In this way, I can focus on bettering the current poem without abandoning these lines completely; they may be appropriate for other works.

You may wonder, how do I know what to cut? The easiest answer I can offer is when in doubt, cut. If you read a poetry anthology (what we may loosely refer to as “great poetry”), notice that great poets do not waste words. Everything serves the greater purpose of the poem. That’s what I want for my poetry. Every word should be the exact word it needs to be, and accomplishing this goal requires ruthless cutting.

In addition to cutting what doesn’t belong, I must make what remains the best version of itself. Young Randall thought only weak writers used thesauruses. Now I know realize that I don’t know every synonym, and I know longer see using this resource as an attack on my creativity or originality. Whether or not I use a thesaurus, the first word I choose to express an idea may not be the best word.

Though it may deviate from the practical advice presented to cut and replace when appropriate, it’s also important psychologically that I edit with a red ink pen. Public schools may frown on red ink and its supposed impact on student self-esteem, but I’m talking about ruthless self-examination. I need to see it. If there isn’t enough red on my draft copy to induce temporary shock, then I know I’m being easy on myself. If I’m easy on myself, then I’m going to present a lesser poem as the finished product. That is unacceptable.

It’s time to become ruthless, time to break out the scissors and red ink.

By the way, if you’re curious about the poem in the image, it’s here.