In three hours our little group of about twenty cleaned up 6 km of highway, bringing in 79 bags of garbage, 6 bags of recycling, 3 mailboxes, a tire, and a few other things I can’t recall at the moment.
Let’s think about that. Everything we picked up had once been considered useful. Those little plastic forks, pop cans, chocolate bar wrappers, bottles, construction materials - everything at one point had a function. If it weren’t for those forks, how would that person have enjoyed their meal? If they hadn’t had a wrapper on that chocolate bar, well, no one would have ever been able to eat it. So these little things were important. But by the time we dug the pieces out of shrubs and mud and gravel, they were nothing but forgotten items people had neglected to throw away properly. All they did was junk up the town.
When we write a story, we fill it with words that are deemed necessary at the time. If we don’t use a specific adjective at that point, will the picture be clear enough for the reader? If that paragraph describing the sunset isn’t there, will the reader know what time it is? Will they sense the scene properly? Or are all those words, once so vital to the story, simply extra bits that no longer serve a purpose?
When you read through something, do the words fill you with a sense of euphoria, kind of like when an elevator stops and your stomach does that little rolling thing? Because when I read something truly phenomenal, I feel that. If that same paragraph is crowded by unnecessary words, the sensation is gone. It’s just another bunch of words I am forced to wade through.
I cut 75,000 words from my first novel. It hurt like crazy, making those cuts. But the streamlined version was a completely different book, one that had something to say. The message was clean. Fresh and inviting, like the sides of our highway are now. The words which remained had been important in the original draft, but were still vital in the present. I went through them so many times, picked through what was garbage and left what belonged, and even then my agent said to go back and look again. There’s always garbage hiding in the grass, under a rock, stuck to the road. Dig it outta there.
One thing, though. When you’re doing your Adopt-A-Manuscript Clean-up, don’t throw it all in the garbage. We’re in 2011. Think Recycle. Some of those thousands of words that I cut ended up reappearing, popping up in bits and pieces in my next couple of novels. The words did have a function. They were meant to be included, just maybe not at that particular time.
Today my husband and I were driving to the gym, heading past the ditches and paths we’d just cleaned, and the odd hot dog wrapper, napkin, cup waved hello from the grass as we drove by. Wouldn’t it be nice if that didn’t happen? If we could continuously edit both the world and our books, keeping them clean and inviting as we go along?
Get rid of the clutter. Take pride in your work. Put in the effort. You’ll be glad you did. Everyone will.