I dare you to do this exercise. The look on a writer’s face when divorcing the draft is always priceless when they are told to literally chop up their beloved piece of writing. As a whole, writers have the tendency to grow too attached to their work. We revise until we can’t see straight. This exercise helps gain the distance necessary to approach a familiar draft with a fresh set of eyes.
This is another nonfiction writing exercise that I’ve adapted from the book Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane. I first completed this exercise as a graduate student in Rhetoric and Comp and have since used it with college and high school writing students. But it’s not just for students. All writers need to continually be open to expanding their arsenal of writing tools. The results can be amazing!
The exercise is geared toward informative nonfiction and would work well with various types of blog posts. However, don’t discount it if you’re more inclined to write fiction. Good fiction also needs to have key passages the develop thematic points, not to mention stories too often contains filler passages that do nothing to move the piece forward. This exercise can be a real eye opener when it comes to spotting fluff.
Ready, set, cut!
You need a draft printed on one side only. Cut apart the draft paragraph by paragraph. Tape any paragraphs together that end or begin on different pages (or adjust before printing). Next, shuffle the paragraphs around.
Go through the stack and find the “core” paragraph. That’s the one that gets to the heart of what you’re trying to say. If you don’t have a paragraph like that, take a moment to finish this sentence:
- “The most important thing I want my readers to understand is __________.” This will now act as your core sentence.
With your core paragraph (or sentence) in front of you, make two new stacks of remaining paragraphs—those related to the core and those that don’t seem relevant. Make sure every piece of information is there for a reason. Ask yourself these questions as you examine each paragraph:
- Does it develop the thesis or further the purpose of the draft or might it be an unnecessary tangent (digression) or part of a paper with a different focus?
- Does it provide important evidence to support what I’m trying to say, or is it possibly unnecessary information?
- Does it illustrate a key idea?
- Does it help establish the importance of what I’m trying to say?
- Does it raise or answer questions that I must explore given what I’m trying to say?
If necessary, cut away or cross out parts of paragraphs that have information that doesn’t seem necessary. Whether fiction or nonfiction, writers often ignore this aspect of craft that can make a good story great. It might hurt to cut words and entire passages out, but doing so often improves a draft ten-fold.
Reassemble the relevant paragraphs. Try a new order (leads, ends, middle). Now number the paragraphs given their new order.
If necessary, insert bits of scrap paper with additional ideas you have realized you need to add to your draft.
Finally, write a reflection on what it felt like to divorce your draft. Why is it often hard to significantly change our writing? It may seem tedious to try such an exercise, but eventually the habits formed from doing it will become a natural part of the writer’s routine making getting the scissors out unnecessary.
Would you try this exercise? What tricks do you have up your sleeve for recognizing irrelevant information in your drafts?
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Image Credit: Scissors by Forbici
Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB