If you hold this sentence in your mind, does it spark joy? Or irritation? Or fatigue? How about a particular simile or prepositional phrase? Can Marie Kondo’s method of tidying up help de-clutter our prose as well?
In her Short Talks, the Canadian poet Anne Carson writes, “I emphasize this. I will do anything to avoid boredom. This is the task of a lifetime.”
She’s right. For a writer, avoiding boring sentences is the task of a lifetime. One strategy to avoid boredom is to pare down your prose, to make your writing as exacting and urgent as possible. Gordon Lish, who was Raymond Carver’s editor for many years, is famous for taking this method to its extreme. Jimmy Chen satirizes his editing technique quite brilliantly in Raymond Carver’s OkCupid Profile, edited by Gordon Lish. What Lish’s piranha-like editing technique teaches us, though, is that texts have many hidden lives, depending on what is included, what is emphasized, what is left out.
The following is a Lish-inspired editing exercise I share with my writing students.
First, cut 100 words out of the story.
Now, get rid of a third of the story’s word count.
If this sounds hostile, it’s because it is. Be hostile. Lash – or rather, Lish – at your prose. You can always put the words back.
For me, revising is a process of stopping at the end of each sentence and thinking, is that word or phrase or sentence necessary or is it blocking the movement of the piece? Would the prose be more immediate, more animate, without it? (Speaking of which, did I even need two adjectives in the last sentence? Wasn’t “immediate” enough?)
A tip that I received from my writing mentor, the great Montreal writer Gail Scott, is to find the “hot line” in the story. The hot line is the gravitational center of the story, the line around which the story coheres.
In an academic text, your hot line would be the thesis. But in a creative piece, it is the line that propels the story forward. Find your Hotline Bling (to misquote Drake). Then, identify some of the other hot lines in your story. These are your co-ordinates. Allow them to redirect the vision of the text and you’ll find the moving, breathing story underneath the surface.
Let it startle you. That’s when you know it’s alive.