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?
***Please help me improve my blog by taking a user survey.***
Image Credit: Scissors by Forbici
Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB
I don’t write very much non-fiction, but divorcing yourself from the draft is also a great idea for viewing your fiction with a more critical eye. Although I’m not sure if I’m prepared to go after my novel with scissors! 🙂
Jocelyn, to take the scissors to an entire novel would be a bit much 😉 I’m planning on taking this approach to the gist of the main scenes in my novel by writing them on note cards that I can then use to rearrange.
Yeah, this one would be hard for me. I have done it though. It is painful. No doubt about it. This exercise makes a lot of sense. Another good one Jeri. 🙂
Cheryl, painful really is an apt description for what it feels like to part with passages we’ve often spent so long cultivating only to realize they don’t really serve a purpose in the larger scheme of a piece of writing.
This reminds me of when I used to cut and tape together my high school and university essays. I’d write them by hand, scribble out words, re-organize things, and tape it all together to create my final ordered version. Then I’d print a final copy (also by hand) before going to the computer and typing it up as a final version I’d submit for marks.
Yes, this is a painful process. Especially when you have to include quotes and use the proper (MLA) style of citing.
Oh, how I don’t cherish those memories! 😉
Thanks, but I’ll pass on this exercise. I’m not feeling like hurting myself today.
Lorraine, that’s so cool that you used to do that with your essays. In this day and age, I find so many people would rather do this exercise electronically which is understandable. However, I think a writer can get a better perspective on a piece by at least participating once in the physical act of chopping up a draft and sliding the paragraphs around on the table. A computer may make the task seem easier, but really we also tend to gloss over a lot when its on a screen.
Well, I have to confess that I didn’t own a computer but had to use the ones at school. Back then, you had to save your work manually, too.
In today’s electronic age, things are SO different.
I still prefer writing by hand; it gives me more enjoyment. However, I’m “adapting” to writing on the computer!
Great post, Jeri.
I just did this with the first draft of my book, but only out of a lack of knowing what else to do! I thought it was much easier for me to see everything – I wouldn’t do it any other way. (Although the picture of all those scraps of paper across my living room was pretty scary…)
Thank you for this post!
Robin, I can totally picture the scene you describe. I’ve felt the same way as I draft my first novel as well. I just hope the process of piecing a huge story together gets a wee bit easier for me the second time around.
Oh my, this sounds like SO much work, and pain, too! Great post, Jeri!
I can see how it can improve one’s writing but if i am to do this for each and every blog post i write, i will have to quit my job… I know it is a matter of habit and it becomes part of your routine, as you said – but does it become a “fast” process to divorce from your draft this way?
I will sure try this exercise some day (bookmarking the post) – i love testing and this sounds like a great way to improve.
A question – should it really be printed? I hate paperwork… is there a work around that – e.g. using acrobat pro for jotting notes and rearranging paragraphs?
Diana, it is a lot of work but a great exercise to do once or twice. It would be possible to drag and drop paragraphs electronically. I could be a bit old-fashioned in thinking doing this with a hard copy works better. I tried it so many times with students and got great results. It’s just that we’re more likely to be deceived into thinking a piece flows when reading it on a computer screen. Reading on a screen makes us more prone to skimming, whereas more focus is required when the paragraphs must be manipulated by hand.
ah, never thought of that, Jeri – i really AM skimming a lot when reading online; but i don’t remember ever skimming through a hard copy of a book! OK, printed it is – will try it and let you know how it went 🙂
This is an intersting methid of getting to the heart of your work. I do something similar to this when I am editing. Scrivener allows you to break apart your work and rearrange the order of scenes and such. Tends to be a bit quicker than messing around with tape and scissors.
Jon, it would be interesting to see how this exercise could be tweaked to work electronically. That being said, I’ll stand by the usefulness of hacking up a physical copy. Quicker isn’t always better…
I don’t write fiction, but seems to me that one could adapt this to fiction as well. Oh My! I’m not sure I could….:) It’s hard enough making cuts. SO hard that I have a folder marked “cuts” and I label the cuts with the chapter…you know, just in case. LOL Maybe I;m the prime candidate for this exercise! Great post!!!
Jacquie, I admire that you keep your cut sections in their own folder. I’m more of a slash and burn writer when it comes to getting rid of passages. I used to keep deleted paragraphs and scenes in a folder, but now if I don’t use them within a few weeks or month, they are sent to the recycling bin. Granted, I occasionally regret getting rid of stuff, but it’s also very freeing too.
Oh, I don’t know if I have the courage for this one…but I’ll give it a try. Sometimes you just fall in love with the way a phrase turns, it’s so hard to cut those sentences away even when you know they serve no purpose. 🙂
Debra, in all my years of grading papers and reading books, I’ve often been bowled over by passages that don’t play any sort of role in the piece of writing at hand. To me, such instances show lack of craftmanship. This exercise really can be an eye-opener, so it will be awesome if you try it at least once on something that you may be struggling to find a focus for.
I’ve been meaning to rewrite some of my post from the past but, somehow, haven’t gotten around to it. I think it’s because I haven’t been too sure how to do it. I think the exercise is going to be perfect for this task.
Glynis, I do hope you’ll give this exercise a go.
This is exactly what I did when I was in high school and writing a paper that I wanted to be really good. (I got an A+) These days I do the same thing but at my computer because it is 10 times faster. You make good points about how to be creative when reworking an article. I think letting it sit a few days before looking at it again is a big help.
Beth, there are so many ways writers can use to gain distance from a piece. Time away from a draft is indeed often the bigger favor we can do ourselves. Chopping up one’s draft does speed up the process a bit when the writer might not have the luxury of letting the draft cool.
Great exercise, Jeri. I do an online version of what you suggest, just using Word’s cut and paste feature. But I see the value of doing it physically–something about manipulating those pieces of paper and seeing the whole gestalt. For more complicated articles or book chapters, I’d definitely try this.
Jagoda, I’ve found that cutting and pasting in Word just ends up making me more confused. Even though I don’t physically cut up most of my drafts these days, I do defer to a hard copy to make notes of where I might move certain passages. Or, it can help to put main points on notecards and experiment with order that way. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, but have yet to try it.
I get heart palpitations, thinking of cutting up a draft that way. I guess that probably means that I need to try it! Also, I would add that for bloggers another relevant question might be “Does this help establish my voice, identity, or rapport with my readers?”
Meredith, I encourage you to try this exercise at least once. I love that you mention the importance of audience as well. That can really help refine how a writer will revise a given piece. Audience analysis is often overlooked.
I am going to try this. I really think this exercise will help me with my post. Thanks Jeri!
Niekka, let me know how it goes if you do decide to give it a go.
How ironic. I literally have a printed draft post right here that I am going to work on tonight. I will give this a try because maybe I can learn a new tool so that I can improve my own writing. Thank you, Jeri! 🙂
Mike, this exercise works wonders for forcing a writer to make a break with their preconceived notions of how well the draft is or isn’t working. I don’t think cutting and pasting on a computer screen can come nearly as close in achieving the same effect.
What an interesting technique! I never work off printouts but I do do something similar with my StoryBox software. I think the reason it works [for me] is that I’m forced to write in scenes and chapters, rather than in one long narrative with lots of waffle filling in the bits that aren’t clear in my mind. That format also makes restructuring and tightening much easier as I can electronically move whole scenes/chapters around – much as you do with your paragraphs. Great post. 🙂
Andrea, I’ve yet to try StoryBox or Scrivener, but everyone has so many good things to say about the software. I’ve realized I did quite a bit of “waffle filling” as I’ve been working on my first novel. It would be great to have software that helped curb that tendency a bit.
This is probably the reason there are no mirrors in my office. Selfies are out of the question.
My parents, both journalists, taught me well. Good writing is good re-writing — early and often — until you can read it out loud without flinching.
I know my first drafts are mixed up — the result of brainstorms and struggles to articulate my arcane thought process. Sometimes someone else will suggest it.
That said, I stand ever ready to cut and rewrite.
Al, I just wish more writers would take that plunge and really re-write their works. It can be a painful process, but as we know, is definitely worth it.
I love this exercise. I know that I could use that when writing my stories. I realized as I was reading this that I could cut done on some of the fluff I sometime use (not sure why) and flesh out the parts that need more substance. This is way cool Jeri. 🙂
Susan, it really is way cool 😉 Hope you’ll give it a try as you get ready to do you next story post and podcast.
Scary, but likely a very useful thing to do. I’ll get back to you when I finish the first draft. Maybe I should try this? Just hit the 100 page mark in the first draft. “Divorce” would be prematures but… maybe a temporary separation to see if the heart grows fonder?
Candy, haha 😉 I definitely think I need to commence with divorcing the second draft of my novel. Here’s to hoping I can gain the needed perspective…
What a great exercise. I may give it a try.
RJ, let me know if you do give it a go.
This is really cutting to the chase- ha ha. Always good to hack away at the dead wood & hone in on what’s necessary. Really like the 3 dimensional quality of this one. Thanks Jeri
A.K., some of Bruce Ballenger’s other books on writing might be a good fit for you as well if you are drawn to this particular exercise.
Wow, what an inventive exercise! Literally chopping up the draft. It does sound like it would get your mind thinking about the familiar story in a new way.
Christy, it’s a great exercise for all writers to try at least once. It can be very revealing.
I have actually done this exercise! It was a few years ago now. I also do a version of this kind of playing around electronically by adding extra spaces between paragraphs and changing font colors so I can rearrange things and not lose track of what is moving (and sometimes I do a ‘copy’ before I do a ‘cut’ and just make one of the copies a different font color).
Laura, changing font faces and colors is another great revision too as well. I’m glad you mentioned it.
Wow, I’d kill a couple trees trying that out. 🙂 The idea is genius. Whether or not I’d be able to handle such trauma, well, I’m not so sure about that.
Loni, such trauma helps us grow as writers 😉
Very interesting idea. I going to take your word for it that it works and try this. I’m working on my novel now and this could be seriously useful for some chapters!
Beth, this exercise really does help pinpoint those “fluffy” passages we tend to add in while getting our initial ideas down.
I need to ask this question with every blog post – “The most important thing I want my readers to understand is __________.”
As my posts are usually my ramblings about how I am feeling, I sometimes get lost in the writing of it. This question will help me to focus on exactly what I am trying to get across. Thank you!
Becc, finding the focusing question can be so hard, but the effort really does pay off. Not enough writers truly step back and ask if they are getting their main point across. However, there is something to be said for the art of effective ramblings and digressions as well, so long as the writer can keep the main focus running throughout as a thread.
This sounds like a great school exercise. I don’t actually print anything I write these days but I could totally see doing this when I was in college. Now I just copy and paste things around.
Krystle, when I’m really stuck on a piece, I will still take this drastic measure to get at the core of what I’m trying to say.
Brutal, oh so brutal…. Going for it. Again!