Great writing: the very hardest thing to do

If you write a lot, some paragraphs you write will just grab you. They will come back to you at unusual times. When you read them, your mind will light up and your reading eyes will slow as you savor their richness. Did I actually write this wondrous thing? This paragraph says exactly what I want it to say and you know this in every corner of your brain.

Now comes the hard part. Throw it out. That paragraph may be wonderful, but it doesn’t fit. I don’t care how hard and satisfying it was to write. You don’t need it. It does not fit in the structure of your piece. Let go. I know it is hard, but this paragraph is water in the stream. As long as the source still flows, more like it will come. Maybe the next one will come when it is needed and get to stay. If you don’t learn to kill the paragraphs you love, you will never become a great writer.

I just turned in a piece that was requested last summer. It was on the foundations of ethology, the antecedent of my discipline. In particular it was on Niko Tinbergen. I dug into the project as soon as I was asked because I always felt this was something I needed to understand better. I got Chip Burkhardt’s wonderful book out of the library. (Someone please write a Wikipedia page for him.) I got scores of other books out too. I read and read. Then I wrote. The piece was long. It was about them, but it was also about me.

But it didn’t hang together. I sat on it. I gave it to my husband. He read it and gave it back without comment. That is never good.

I let it sit a few more months. Finally I could see which half to throw out. I could see where to move paragraphs. I could finish it. In doing so, I threw out several paragraphs I loved. I jettisoned what by now felt like a part of myself. Let’s just hope that what remains does the job it should. Let’s just hope that what remains has some structure and a clear narrative. Let’s just hope that what remains gets read and gets remembered. I’m hopeful because this time I did get a few critical comments from my loyal husband.

So remember, if you are not throwing out the baby and the bathwater, you are not writing as effectively as you could.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Great writing: the very hardest thing to do

  1. Carolyn R says:

    Reblogged this on Blue skies & bees and commented:
    Something for me to think about, and bloggers in general.

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