A year or two ago, a professor of mine was editing a novel he’d written and posted, on Facebook, an analogy that has significantly influenced the way I edit. I can’t remember his exact phrasing (and I wish I could, because that was half the impact of it), but the gist of the comparison was that sometimes, a story has pieces to it that are interesting or well-written or the result of hours of thought and work, but simply — if an editor is being completely honest — don’t belong in that story. Like puppies, those pieces are good things, and you’d never want to part with them, but if they are unnecessary, they have to go. Chop the piece, kill the puppy.
Writing produced by college students is often filled with puppies, because college students are very good at finding good things, but not always very good at knowing whether that good thing is actually essential to their work. Because I work at my school’s Writing Center and am senior copy editor for our magazine, I encounter puppies on a daily basis. There was a time when I would have been too taken with the quality of the writing or the interestingness of the information to recognize those things as superfluous. But now, I am merciless. I steel myself and kill the puppy. It’s a painful, unpleasant, and sometimes guilt-inducing process, but the end result — a tight, polished, graceful piece of writing — confirms that being merciless was the right thing to do.
Because I need a little consolation, here’s a picture of a puppy I would never kill.