Just Take the Damn Thing Out: Revising by Excision

The salesman said it would take us about thirty-five minutes to put the desk together, so this morning my wife and I did our signature pinky swear as we united and readied to face those fearful words, “Assembly Required.”

Six hours later, we were frazzled, weary, snippy, hungry and by-God fed up with the task that was proving to be an impossible one. At one point, I struggled to put in a screw, got it in crooked, and then couldn’t budge it. My wife said, “Just take it out. Just take the damn thing out.”

Such an excellent editor she would be.

Sometimes you just have to take the damn thing out.

For example, we sometimes erect some sort of scaffolding that allows us to get near sensitive material that we ordinarily wouldn’t approach. Maybe we adopt the form of something else—a shopping list, a syllabus, a cookbook—to make us feel safe enough to explore material that makes us uncomfortable. At other times, we play tricks with point of view, using second person or third person to give us the distance we need in order for to say things we might otherwise be hesitant to put on the page. Sometimes form and content unite in a way that works for the essay. At other times, though, the form seems like a gimmick. That’s what tells you it’s unnecessary. It’s scaffolding. In revision, take it down. It’s served its purpose. It’s allowed you to get material on the page that you might not dare approach without the safety of that scaffolding. You don’t need it anymore. Let it go and concentrate on delving into your material with courage and confidence.

At other times, we have to take out a tendency to summarize. A summary of an event casts the reader into the role of a spectator. Summary distances your reader from the experience you’re describing. If you’ve summarized an important event in a first draft, you need to dramatize it instead. Take out the summary and write a scene. When you write a scene, you cast the reader into the role of a participant. The reader feels that he or she is living in the moment rather than merely observing it.

We have to make sure that the scenes we write are reserved for those crucial moments, ones that cause the way we think about our experiences to deepen. Often we write scenes about ordinary things to avoid writing scenes about those moments that mattered. We have to be selective. We have to cut away the ordinary so the extraordinary can stand out.

The process of revising a piece of creative nonfiction is often one of expanding and deepening, but sometimes it’s also a process of excision as we take out the tricks that are no longer serving the material, or the avoidances that keep us from the heart of the matter. Sometimes, as my wife pointed out to me when I got that screw into a position that wasn’t working, you just have to take the damned thing out. Only then can you continue toward a successful assembly.


  1. Jeanne Voelker on March 27, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    Yes, that self-protective scaffolding. I sometimes find my narrator (a stand-in for myself) is more of an observer than a participant in a story. Maybe it’s time to experiment with a more participatory role.

    • Lee Martin on April 9, 2017 at 5:12 pm

      Jeanne, the modulation between spectator and participant is always interesting whether we’re talking about memoir, a first-person novel, or a piece of fiction written in an omniscient point of view or even a close third-person limited. Something interesting and valuable happens when we reside in that space between acting and thinking.

  2. asha on April 4, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks for the advice! I just cut an entire scene and it felt so good!!

    • Lee Martin on April 9, 2017 at 5:10 pm

      It always feels good to trim down a piece of writing because it brings you closer to what you’ve come to the page to say.

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