Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With, #5

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 17, 2015

I did some posts a few weeks ago about the five files I keep on my screen while I’m writing. I posted four but somehow spaced out doing the fifth. My apologies (and thanks to Peter Brockwell for reminding me). Here it is now:

Dante and Virgil approaching the entrance to Hell (engraving by Gustave Dore)

I call this fifth file CULLS.

Have you ever seen an inspection station for tomatoes or potatoes? A conveyor belt shuttles the fresh-from-the-field produce past a line of human checkers (usually farm kids being paid eight bucks an hour.) The good taters and peaches sail past and get boxed up for market. The bad ones get plucked out and sent to agricultural hell.

Those are the culls.

My CULLS file contains everything I’ve cut from the manuscript I’m working on. I don’t delete anything permanently. I just stash it in literary purgatory.

Here’s why I like having a CULLS file:

1. It encourages me to cut.

It’s healthy to cut. The habit of cutting keeps you from getting precious and overly possessive. I like to cut as I go along. I’ll whack words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, entire pages and chapters.

I have two mantras as I work. The first is, “When in doubt, it’s Resistance.” The second is, “When in doubt, cut.”

I invoke the first whenever my brain presents me with some plausible pretext for sluffing off or going easy on myself. I ask myself, “Is this legitimate or is it Resistance?” Forty-plus years has taught me: it’s almost always Resistance.

I learned the second mantra from my days working in advertising. Have you ever tried to write a thirty-second commercial? Sixty words max. It’s hard. You learn to cut and you learn to love to cut.

I’ve never met any writer, myself included, who had too quick a trigger finger. We always hang on too tight. It’s not healthy.

2. A CULLS file protects me from losing any nuggets of brilliance.

The great thing about a CULLS file (combined with the “Command F” search capacity) is you can streamline your working file without permanently losing any gem you might need later. You can always find that beauty and call it back from Siberia.

How do I decide which stuff to un-cut? The unconscious decides for me. I’ll be shaving or driving on the freeway and a voice will speak up: “Remember that part where the dog bites the football? Let’s bring that back.”

Two things I’ve learned from keeping a CULLS file:

1. The file is always longer than the book. Don’t ask me why. It seems counterintuitive. But it’s true, at least for me. I’m working on a manuscript right now that’s 194 single-spaced pages. The CULLS file is 263.

2. I’ll almost never bring something back from the CULLS file. Out of 250 pages, I’ll retrieve maybe thirty or forty lines.

A couple of years ago I was reading a friend’s (published) book. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get through it. Why? Because it was half again as long as it should have been.

Each redundant phrase, every superfluous sentence was like a tree branch that snaps back in your face as you’re hiking through the woods. What did my friend need? He needed a CULLS file and the will to use it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

12 Responses to “Files I Work With, #5”

  1. Grace
    June 17, 2015 at 6:14 am

    Good morning, Steven!

    Loved this series…practical, try-it-now advice I can implement today for immediate results! Please keep stuff like this coming!

    Question: do you save your culls in story order (by scene or act?) or just in the order you hack ’em out?

    Happy Wednesday!

  2. Mary Doyle
    June 17, 2015 at 6:14 am

    This is something I really needed to hear. I use Scrivener and keep everything I cut in a separate “deleted scenes” file. It is huge, and Resistance nags at me about it – “you’re doing something wrong here, you’re throwing out more than you’re keeping in.” It’s so sneaky – thanks for keeping the bright light on it Steve!

  3. June 17, 2015 at 6:21 am

    Timely and so helpful. It does make me want to get off my small laptop and over to the desktop for more room for the CULLS, but that is resistance talking!

  4. June 17, 2015 at 6:41 am

    I do this!

    My first book (the one that landed me an agent) had over 200,000 words in my cut file. Agent came back and said: “Can you cut out about 80,000 more?”

  5. June 17, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Instead of “cutting words” we could all be “growing our cull file.”

    In your face, Resistance.

  6. Ava Brenner
    June 17, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Great idea…Do you have an organization system for the cut/culls?

    I love the idea, but it might turn into a distracting mess for me?

  7. June 17, 2015 at 10:43 am

    I love the idea of a CULLS file. I do use one when I’m feeling too precious about my work as a way to tell my subconscious that we can always retrieve said cut words, phrases, scenes, chapters. Ouch. And yes, it’s all about what serves the story! Onward and forward!

  8. Sonja
    June 18, 2015 at 10:34 am

    These posts are so helpful! Thanks for letting us in on your process!

  9. June 18, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    You say that you have never met a writer with a quick trigger finger. Do you think a writer would be more successful, theoretically, if they did?

  10. June 18, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I just cut quite a bit of my work today. Hard to do but happy with the outcome From now on I’ll keep my cuts in a file. Thanks!

  11. June 20, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Ahh…a cutting device… and an idea machine all in one…

    I wonder if one could look in old cull files when deciding projects… Seems like a good idea

  12. Stephanie Spinner
    June 23, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Hi, Steven,

    I’ve been doing this all along, mainly out of vanity. Or maybe because it’s so hard to discard ANY work that took effort (no matter how questionable). It’s strangely comforting to know I can retrieve it; and of course, I never do.

    A pleasure to read your advice.