• One Minnesota Writer

52 Ways to Shift Your Focus

Shift #17: Cut it Up

How many times have you written something that you love, but everyone who reads it suggests it’s too long? It doesn’t work. It’s in the wrong form. Then you look at it and seethe. Can’t your readers see what you were doing? Are they stupid? Don’t they know good work when it’s right in front of them? Isn’t literature a living thing, open to experiments? All kinds of knee jerk reactions go through your head before you push them away and figure out the next step. Hopefully, you’ve kept your knee-jerk reactions to yourself. Time to deconstruct your own work in some new way.

Deconstruction is one of those things students of literature, writers, and editors learn to do. Take apart a piece of writing, see what makes it work. See this line here? Does it really do anything for the piece as a whole? No? Cut it. Is this bit over here clear enough that a reader will get it or is it only going to make them – including those familiar with the work’s topic – scratch their heads? Maybe that bit should be cut, too. Or reworded. Reordered, even.

Stepping back from your own work far enough to do that on your own is daunting. But, sometimes, you have to work without the comfort of a group of people who can give you feedback. Or, sometimes you just need to make the work different enough that your peers will actually want to read it again. This may require a radical act.

I have just the thing.

First, print out your work. This kind of revision needs to be done offline. In fact, print out two copies.

Next, get out your scissors. The big ones, not the little kid safety scissors. 

Grab that first copy you printed out. Cut it up line by line. Drink some coffee while you do this. Listen to music. Anything to make the cutting a sort of Zen-like effort that lets your mind rest instead of spazzing over the idea of taking a scissors to these words you’ve spent so much time getting down in what you thought was the right form.

When you get all the lines cut apart, toss them on the nearest table top like a salad without a bowl. Reassemble them in random groups of your favorite number under 10, like 3 or 5 (I’m partial to odd numbers), and then see what sorts of unexpected associations you get. Move your little groups around on the table top. Play.

How does this make you think about that piece now? Handwrite (no, you may not go back to your computer yet) a new outline of this piece based on these random associations. Does it take you to a new conclusion? Give you a new approach to an old topic?

Awesome. Make some more coffee. Change up your music.

Now, just for giggles, pick up that second copy you printed out. Cut it up every which way, without regard to lines. Toss those pieces into a paper salad on a different table top. Pull out random scraps and see what you get. How does that shake up your thinking? If you made a collage with these pieces, what would it look like? Do it.

Here’s one more thought. If you were working with a photo way back when you began this piece of writing that you’re now cutting up, go get it. Cut that up, too, and rearrange bits of it. Does that shift something? If you don’t want to cut up the photo, just turning it upside down might be enough. Or, take pieces of construction paper and block out part of it. Move a piece of paper with a hole in it over various parts of the photo. It all changes your focus.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I think I want to try cutting up the entire morning newspaper. Just because.

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