May 142014
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Time and distance help a writer get rid of “junk” in a story

My husband and I have spent the last two weeks cleaning and sorting our basement and crawl space. It is time to downsize. After living in the same house for almost twenty years, a house with ample storage space, we’ve collected a lot of stuff. Although I have weeded through things at different times over the years, I have never attacked the task as ruthlessly as now.

I took some time in the midst of the cleaning and sorting to do some writing. I began needed rework on a short story I wrote this winter. I discovered I was ready to be as ruthless with the story as I was with my physical stuff. Perspective had changed.

When I weeded through belongings in the past, I tended to hang onto things I thought I might use some day, even if I hadn’t used them for quite a while or ever, because I had room to keep them. I don’t know how much storage space I will have in the future, but I assume it will be much less. Something that has sat unused in a box in the back of my crawl space for ten years or more is certainly not essential. As for those things being kept for sentimental reasons, the passing of time has lessened the attachment.

The passing of time since I last looked at my story has effected a similar change in perspective. No longer immersed in the immediacy of its writing, I read the story from the outside in, not sitting in the midst of it. I am willing to cut things from the story. Descriptions, events and dialogue I liked or found personally interesting, but were not important to the story. I have a better understanding of what to focus on.

How does one gain enough distance from one’s writing in order to hone it and edit it? Time away from the piece helps. Even a short break while focusing on something else can be useful.

Whether setting a piece aside for a long time or a short time, finding a way to take a step back from your story can improve your focus on the heart of the story and identify what is essential and what is non-essential. Short stories rarely have room for the non-essential.

What do you do to gain perspective in your writing? How has time and/or distance helped you gain perspective in other endeavours?

Photo Credit: Nic McPhee via flickr cc

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  21 Responses to “Declutter Your Story”

  1. Hi Donna. I agree that time is one of the best ways to gain fresh perspective but since most of what I write is spontaneous and posted right away I cant usually benefit from it. My substitute is to try to read the first draft through the eyes of 3 people whose views I respect but who all have very different outlooks,preferences and priorities. I then make whatever adjustments I think would assist each to get the essence. Sometimes after posting I will make further tweaks if I sense from reader comments that the transmission lacked clarity. Obviously this wouldn’t work for most purposes but I find it helpful for my blog.

  2. Absolutely agree with you Donna. I write fiction…sometimes I have to put it away and let it pickle a little 🙂 Time away has helped me hone the scene, the chapter, the ending. I get a clearer vision of the path the character needs to take.

  3. Donna- sometimes a break whether it is from writing, working on a project or working on your goals, you need to remove yourself. It is interesting when you come back you have a new perspective and the job doesn’t seem as daunting.

  4. Agree with you completely that time is the best solution when it comes to getting a perspective on your writing. Definitely.

  5. You hit the nail on the head Donna. I often write a piece and leave it for a few days. The editing process is as much fun as the initial write. It is amazing that a change of perspective comes with a change in location, a change in ones life, a change in climate. It’s like going to the supermarket while hungry or after having just eaten a meal. A good piece should have been looked at under the eyes of more than just one perspective.

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  8. I love the way you observe that as your physical perspective changed, it better enabled you to revise your writing. I remember writing something a while back that I submitted for publication and receiving a letter from the editor saying, “Please put this piece of writing away for two months and then re-visit it.” When I looked at the piece again two months later, I did exactly what you did. I looked at it form the outside in. After revising the piece, it was accepted for publication.

  9. I agree with you. Anytime I write something, I leave it alone for at least 24 hours to let it “simmer.” Great post! Looking forward to seeing more from you in the future. Cheers!

  10. Great post. It’s so common for writers to get stuck, I certainly do, and changing the task is one great way out!

  11. I love a good decluttering. It’s so hard to be ruthless with your own stuff, whether it be physical or written, but it feels so good when it’s done. I like to actually walk away from the computer to get perspective. Do the dishes, go to the grocery store, etc. Just connecting with the real world clears the cobwebs sometimes.

  12. I absolutely agree with you Donna, I often start to write a piece and correct it the following day. Good practice!

  13. Hi Donna
    I ‘m usually about two weeks ahead with my posts before I publish them. I then read them everyday and constantly seem to be changing the wording or the sentence structure or even eliminate entire paragraphs. Love your all your ‘decluttering’ information.

  14. Awesome post, Donna. I agree that often we can strengthen our writing by putting it aside and coming back to it. As you way, when we’re in the midst of it, we can lose perspective.

  15. One of my favorite parts of writing is to go back after letting a draft cool and cutting out as many words as possible.

  16. I try to write and leave it for at least 24 hours. Upon return, I have a better perspective of whether or not it is ready to publish. Great piece

  17. I too prefer to take mini- breaks and continue from the part where I left the piece. It helps me to focus on the post and bring in some fresh ideas.

  18. My husband and I are in the midst of organizing and consolidating our home and I completely understand where you are. It is so important to take small breaks to get your mind cleared. Once you have refreshed your mind, you can tackle to not so great stuff. 🙂

  19. Hello; a while back i left a comment on lorraine reguly’s blog. we got to know each other, and she became my writing back up. she would fix things she found in my posts. then recently i wrote a post about being a good guest author or podcast subject. I sent it to her expecting a minor clean up. instead she gave it the full treatment adding resources including additional links making the bullet list points with numbers and transitions. so i have learned the value of letting go of a piece and trusting a trusted friend or editor to make it special. Hope this helps, max

  20. Great post Donna. I have also struggled with this hoarding of stuff and will definately be doing ruthless clearing in the coming months. I need to de clutter. On writing, I have noticed that I get thougthts which I pen down and let them mature. I have currently more than 10 thoughts which I will get back to when I have more perspective on them and write the story. It works all the time.

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