Applying the rules of art to writing: eliminate the non-essential

“Every work of art should contain whatever it needs to fulfil its descriptive objective but nothing more. Look at the ‘leftover’ parts of every composition. Successful images have no dead spaces or inactive parts. Look at your compositions holistically and make sure that every element advances the purposes of the whole.”
Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White 

Kit White


Every writer has over-written, been carried away with a sub-plot that leads nowhere, given a character its head and let it run away from the plot. When I was writing my first novel Ignoring Gravity, I read an interview with a novelist who recommended asking yourself of a chapter or passage you’ve just written: ‘But what does it do? How does it progress the story?’

If you don’t know, stop and consider.

If you do know and it is taking the story in a different direction, you don’t necessarily have to stop, just be aware of what you are doing. There is an argument that says continue writing, that the diversion may be better than the original idea, that the diversion may turn into book two, or a completely different novel unrelated to the first.

It is too easy to focus on the blank page, one page at a time, and not consider the overall shape of the book, the highs and lows, the build-up of tension towards the end. Editing is as much a part of the writing process as creating characters, witty prose, and planning plot twists. Draft one, draft two… it may not be until draft 22, when your novel is tighter and shorter, that you pen the best opening paragraph.

The editing process is about cutting out the parts which don’t ‘advance the purposes of the whole,’ as Kit White says. But don’t delete them, squirrel them away. They may be the trigger to something completely different.
Kit White

‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White [MIT Press] Buy now

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  1. I have to admit I’m one of those who just keeps writing, especially in the first draft. It’s only on 2nd and drafts thereafter that I analyse everything – loads gets deleted, but I should think about keeping the deletes – as you say, they could be used in something else!

  2. Great post! My “squirreled away” thoughts that I’ve removed from my manuscripts are the length of a book, themselves! It’s hard to remove what we love, but every time I read each subsequent draft, I can acknowledge how much better it is.

  3. Excellent advice, Sandra. I recently had to revise a short story I’d written so I could submit it to an anthology. Because of word count restrictions, I needed to eliminate 1,000 words. Throughout several revisions, I’d already cut over 3,000 words from this story, and I didn’t know how I could eliminate one more. Over the course of two evenings, I trimmed out 1,000 unnecessary words, and the story is all the better for it.

    • Yes, sometimes we have to be tough with ourselves. I’ve learned more of this by writing flash fiction where you have to shave off a word here and a word there. SD

  4. “What does it do? How does it progress the story?” – These questions are very important if a writer has mixed feelings about a text passage.

  5. Reblogged this on The Writer's Workshop Blog and commented:
    After so much editing on my first three books I tried to “edit” as I wrote on the fourth book. Not a good idea, for me anyway, as it slowed me down. I thought if I could just be more aware of how I wrote each paragraph and section of dialogue it would mean less time editing at the end. I still spent the time no matter if it’s as I go along or when I am finished first draft. It was a worthwhile experiment but I have now gone back to letting the words flow more freely and I feel I am making more progress this way.