Developing Discernment — What’s Crucial to a Text?

Writers need discernment in order to be good. It’s true of all artists. You have to know what to keep and what to get rid of.

What is discernment? It’s the ability to judge well. In Christian context, it has to do with determining truth and error, and the spiritual guidance that helps one navigate in truth.

For our purpose it’s the artist’s conviction of what’s right for their work or not. It’s beyond opinion because when you have a deep relationship with what you’re doing, you know what works and what doesn’t. So when something needs to be pulled from your manuscript, it’s not your opinion that it needs to be pulled, but your understanding that it needs to be, and why it needs to be pulled from the work.

Revising will help you find the answers to your manuscript.

There’s nothing more to say on this topic unless you’re not convicted on making the cuts.

It’s about what’s doing what’s right for your manuscript. It’s not a matter of killing darlings or saving darlings. The problem with kill your darlings is that too much of an issue has been made out of it. It’s an overtalked and misunderstood concept.

There’s nothing lazy about killing your darlings. It’s laborious work to revise. A section can be integrated so deeply into your narrative that you have to go through it from top to toe changing parts here and there to streamline the work. There’s nothing creepy about killing them. It takes conviction to remove them.

Darlings are difficult to get rid of because they’re meritorious. To the author, if not to readers as well. They have value; may indeed be beautiful, great writing. Cut them out and stick them in a drawer, maybe they belong to another project you’ll work on. Or let them be a casualty of the craft. They’re part of the ego. It’s better to get rid of ego than to hold onto it. In the end and often before it: everyone comes crashing down to humility.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down: some points to developing discernment.

What’s right for your work is crucial, what you like for your work is moot.

What in your work is capable of standing on its own, what is distracting from its character and overall power?

Read all of your work out loud. When you read your work out loud you can hear things that you don’t pick up when you read silently. The hills are alive with the sound of music and that music is your voice reading your own words.

If you’re not sure whether or not your darlings need to go; workshop your material. Or leave it alone and read for days; material unrelated to what you were working on; the comics, trash, elegant novels, everything; then go back to yours with a fresh brain. Or have someone edit it for content.

What you are learning to do in any of these routes is see your work from another perspective. If these routes are out of the question — or you don’t get what you need out of them — then pray for discernment.

Look at what you’ve written and see: is it even, does it flow like water, lava, plasma, sperm, how does it contribute to the story? A writer once said: It is essential that you put aside all other considerations and focus on the internal rhythms of the writing itself. Once the project has begun to take on a life of its own, you must proceed with honesty and humility, issuing all petty biases and superficial interests in order to attend to the needs of your writing without distraction.

If you removed the words in question is the story stronger or weaker?

The better you know your story the clearer the cuts to make will be.

Every episode in your book does not have to be a tributary of the plot. Cortazar could have ripped chapter 7 out of his Rayuela and the absence of those distractingly beautiful pages would have streamlined the novel. Chapter 7 has an intimacy that isn’t found in the rest of the novel. It’s incidental. Cut away the excess: but only if it’s the right move to make.

You can go to more workshops, you can read more books and magazines, but you got to get the discernment. That’s what makes a writer good. You will have advanced greatly as an artist when you know what’s good for your book, what is not, and make the cuts needed. When you do this and your writing is captivating the next step is getting published. Sing Polly Wolly Doodle all the day.

The sooner you know the better off you’re going to be.

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I write at the intersection of interest and pressing need.

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