As a kid I remember watching the 1986 comedy Ruthless People (starring Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, and Judge Reinhold!) pretty much on a loop—with breaks to rewind, because VHS. It probably wasn't the most appropriate choice, but I loved it. Even the trailer is GLORIOUSLY terrible.
Thirty years later I don't remember much of the film itself, but I know for sure that it introduced me to the word ruthless. I remember pulling out a dictionary to figure out what the word meant and I repeated it over and over again. I found it so delicious. No other word in my vocabulary has such a vivid discovery story - complete with divas, villains, murder, and ransom. (I really need to see this movie again...if only to admire the hair and shoulder pads.)
How does this relate to writing? Stay with me.
For my first major writing assignment in university I was paired with a more senior student. He walked me through the process, explaining that once I had a first draft of my paper he'd help me edit it. I'd never let anyone see my unfinished work before. The idea of showing him a rough draft gave me hives.
But then I watched as he cut out entire paragraphs, moved sentences around, and made note of where my ideas weren't complete. I was amazed. You could DO that to someone else's work? In that moment something clicked for me. Knowing that you could play with someone's work like that to make it clearer, better, more cohesive: it was liberating.
My editor was ruthless. And it was exactly what my paper needed. I thought: I WANT TO DO THAT. And I did.
Kill Your Darlings
Being ruthless with your writing just means not getting too attached to anything you've written. You may need to slash and burn, or move things around, or rework a paragraph or two. If what you have down on paper is so precious that it can't be changed, you'll never get anywhere. A more sophisticated version of this advice in the literary world is to "kill your darlings"—which has been attributed to both Allen Ginsberg and William Faulkner.
But here's the thing: you have to believe that it's best for your writing. You have to believe that all the work you did to get you where you are wasn't wasted. You have to believe that there's more good material to come.
That's where people sometimes get stuck. They spend hours and hours getting a draft together, and they're understandably reluctant to then get rid of whole chunks of it.
How to be ruthless
Being ruthless takes some practice. Here's a way to get started:
- Read your full draft at least once: take a bird's-eye view of the whole piece
- Let it sit for a while
- Imagine your reader: identify where they might get stuck or confused
- Rearrange sections, paragraphs, and sentences in a way that enhances logical flow: make it easier for your reader
- Cut whatever doesn't fit*
- Wash, rinse, repeat
*If the idea of straight-up deleting your writing scares you, save it in a 'Parking Lot' document. Once you've done a first full edit, go back to the Parking Lot and see if there's anything in there that needs to go back into the main draft. In my experience, this almost never happens.
The more often you're ruthless in the editing stage, the easier this will get. You'll learn to trust that you'll always have enough to say. In fact you'll probably learn that you usually have too much to say. You'll be able to edit with this attitude:
There's more where that came from.
How ruthless are you when you edit your work? Do you remember watching Ruthless People in the eighties? (No? Just me?) Tell me in the comments!