Culling (or, logging your manuscript’s debris)

Culling is a term familiar to most farmers, ranchers and wildlife management officers. It means “to select and remove something without value.”  My DH’s recent logging efforts culled several spindly trees from an area in front of our house. He removed those that had already died and fallen over as well as others that were crowded and struggling for sunlight and nourishment, and wouldn’t survive another summer’s heat.


During recent manuscript revisions I culled words – chopped them out as ruthlessly as if they were dead trees destined to become a fire hazard. I slashed at superfluous adverbs and adjectives, descriptions that served no purpose except to pad the word count, and a whole chapter containing a sub-plot that distracted from the character’s journey.

It took weeks to write those words, and just about as long to get rid of them. Some were quite lovely, rolling nicely off the tongue as they did. I was rather fond of them but they had to go. I’ve heard other writers refer to the process as “killing your darlings”, but the brutality of that is too much for me. I prefer culling. It sounds less violent, although I guess they’re just as dead.

The trees will go to a chipper and live again as mulch on a riding trail or garden path. The words? They could show up in a different manuscript or short story, or I might just let them sink below the surface of my creative conscience. If they were unnecessary before, they’ll likely still be without value next time I’m tempted to dredge them up.

Do you find it easy to edit out debris in your writing or is it painful to let go of hard won words?

~  ~  ~


16 thoughts on “Culling (or, logging your manuscript’s debris)

  1. Judith Robl says:

    “a whole chapter containing a sub-plot that distracted from the character’s journey.”

    That chapter and sub-plot just might be the center of another work entirely. Save it. You never know when an unexpected inspiration might strike.

    Remember that chipped wood is used for mulch to help the garden grow.

  2. Sue Harrison says:

    Love the photos, Careann, and the analogy! I’ve found that the more recently I’ve written the words, the more difficult it is for me to cull them. However, with each manuscript, I start a “CUT” file so I don’t actually lose the words I’m cutting. That makes the whole process much easier for me.

  3. Beautiful huge tree behind the pile in last pic. I love the way you use the photos as examples of processes. I think you have a new art form there. I don’t mind the latter part of projects when things start to take shape, and start to be clearer. It would be nice to get things right at the first shot, but it almost never happens! It’s always redoing, or revamping. and I have a hard time about the time lost there not getting it right the first round, all this motion in between getting what’s in your head out there into reality. But when things start to appear naturally at the end and almost have a life of their own, chopping doesn’t seem as bad as leaving something painful behind.

  4. Erica Vetsch says:

    I’ve been surprised at how, the longer I write, the easier it becomes to cull words from my manuscripts. When I first started, I thought every word was precious, but now I know that I can tighten the writing and make it much better by culling the dead wood.

  5. Like Laura and Sue, I keep a “scraps” file. And I have actually had to go back and pull something from it to put back into the manuscript. This way, I don’t find it so hard to delete parts of my manuscript. If it’s really necessary to the story, it will find it’s way back in there. 🙂

  6. I haven’t been working on my manuscript. It hasn’t fit into my routine lately. But, when I was cutting, or culling (I like that term), it made the MS read so much better that I enjoyed doing it. I like to be concise. More is not necessarily better. I remember chopping some places that I’d come to admire. Ha! Then in a more lucid moment I’d realize my prized excerpt was detrimental. Whack, chop, drop. Blessings to you and happy culling…

  7. Lovely post as always, Carol. I think in the beginning it was harder as I clung to each word like a desparate person hanging on to a life line. Now it seems more natural to “cull” and to “prune” those words and phrases … often whole pages. Like you, I often revisit them later, but I have gotten over the impulse to keep them … after all … some things are better left unsaid 🙂

  8. Carol says:

    “Whack, chop, drop!” I like the sound of that, Carol Ann! Getting the culling task done! LOL. I’m enjoying all the comments today. 🙂

    I appreciate Erica’s experienced point of view, too, that tighter writing is important and words that prevent it need to be eliminated.

    I’m with those of you who use a “cut” file, saving chunks of manuscript that may be useful later. I’ve saved the chapter I axed, and the occasional scene, but I don’t bother with individual words or sentences. ‘Delete’ and they’re gone.

  9. Darlene says:

    I found it hard at first as I just didn’t want to give up those precious words I worked so hard to come up with. But I am OK with it now as I realize some of those words have to go to make the writing stronger.

  10. joylene says:

    It’s funny you should say this, because my husband cuts trees down as a side job. I asked him once how he would feel if he spent all day chopping and splitting, only to return the next day to find the trees back in forest as tall as ever. He understand from then on how the life of a writer is an often frustrating feat to see how much head banging one can do before we’re happy with our words.

    Cutting, revising, editing is actually my favourite part of the novel process. I love when a so-so scene comes alive and turns into something other than its bland existence. In a few months the spot where all those spindly trees were removed will come alive with new undergrowth, while the reminding trees look even more majestic.

    As always, a great post, Carol. You are a master at this blogging thing.

  11. Fiona says:

    Great post! I actually really enjoy culling words! Just pressing that delete button and watching all the unsuitable, unusable and sometimes unnecessary words disappear. There are some phrases which I become attached to, and I know they have to go – I’d say that is the hardest part. Taking something out that you truly love. But for the most part, I do enjoy that part of the editing process. It’s liberating in a way. Plus, you know it all contributes to making your manuscript a better piece of work.

  12. Carol says:

    It’s great getting all your feedback! Thanks, everyone. It seems we all agree the culling is part of what makes a manuscript healthier, stronger.

  13. Maria Tatham says:

    First, I enjoyed these photos!
    About your questions, it’s easier for me to let go of turns of phrase than it is to remove unnecessary scenes. That mulched path you mentioned? Well I guess that I lay down a lot of unnecessary ones that lead away from the real story. We must cull. To change metaphors, a dead tree on the path of our story will irritate readers as they must step around them.

  14. robin says:

    No, I do not find it easy to edit out debris–I find it very, very difficult to “cut” what I have created! And I think that’s the reason: because I created it. Maybe that’s why writers think of it as “killing our darlings,” because the words spring like children from the recesses of our minds. But, you have pertinent advice here, and I will adopt that image of culling undergrowth the next time I edit. Actually, this is the perfect time for me to read this post, as I am preparing to spend the day on my manscript. To the creating, and to the culling!

  15. Carol says:

    Maria and Robin, thanks for stopping in here to read and comment. It’s interesting to hear how other writers react to this need for culling to create concise writing.

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