Revising: What to Keep and What to Let Go

Cathy and I spent some time clearing our garden of plants that served us well this summer but have stopped producing. The space they were taking up can be of better use for cool weather crops. Yes, we’re making that turn to autumn, and that means some things must go, so other things can be planted. The tired old pole bean vines came up from their roots as did the purple hull peas. I sowed turnips, radishes, and lettuce in the freshly worked soil.

Our writing can often become tired as well. Maybe we have elements in our work that just aren’t producing. The best thing might be to tear those elements out to make room for new things that will better bear fruit.

Here, then, are some questions to ask after you have a draft of something:


  1. Can you identify a passage—maybe it’s a scene, or an image, or even a single line—that expresses the heart of what you’re writing? What stands out for you? What’s hot about that passage? Look for the passage that the piece absolutely can’t do without.


  1. Does every part of the piece contribute to this heart? Keep what’s necessary and do away with what’s not.


  1. What needs to be expanded? Sometimes we have sections that out intuition tells us we need but we haven’t written enough, or looked deeply enough, to understand why. Look for places where you can challenge yourself to write at least three more sentences. The objective is to go more deeply into what’s at hand, so you can see its connections to what’s driving your piece. You might even write a sentence that says, “This passage is necessary because it. . . .” As you fill in the blank, you’ll be able to know what you need to do with that passage to make it more fully contribute.


  1. What have you yet to say? Articulate what seems to be missing from the piece. This should give you cues for material waiting to be written.


  1. What are you afraid to say? Often, we either consciously or unconsciously avoid what frightens us or makes us feel uncomfortable. Have the courage to go where the piece needs to go even if it’s toward a dark place.


I hope these five questions will help you with revision or even get you writing again if you feel stuck with a piece in progress. Sometimes we must do away with passages that aren’t working so we can make room for new passages or deeper dives into something already on the page. The key is to make sure you’re seeing all the contradictory layers of human experience that lie at the heart of all good writing.

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