There’s an old Ella Fitzgerald song that goes:
Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me
Do you know the one? Is it now stuck in your head forever? Sorry. It spontaneously played in my brain today because I have a version that I sing when I cull text from my thesis. It goes:
It was only an afternoon
Writing sentences on a screen
So why does it make me grieve
When words are cleaved from me?
I call this The Dirge of Deletion. It is my tearful refrain every time I have to cut precious paragraphs from my thesis.
Why is it so hard to say goodbye to text? What I’m deleting is literally digital shapes. I’m not losing blood, or limbs. No one I love will be harmed by the deletion. I will not become poor, or hungry, or even mildly inconvenienced by cutting text. The labour that created these words has long been over.
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. The labour.
Once, long ago, I worked hard to create those words. “This paragraph is not just a paragraph,” I tell myself, “it was once my afternoon!” This is why editing is so painful to me. If I cut that paragraph, then I know that the afternoon I spent carefully crafting it could have been spent at the movies.
Economists might call my afternoon of work a “sunk cost.” I’m not going to get that time back, no matter how much or how little I delete. It is irretrievable. (And in fact, that’s not a bad thing because all writing is a learning experience, even if the text is deleted.) But I can prevent future costs by cutting my losses. If a particular section is not a good investment, I can stop spending my time on it and get rid of it. After all, these are only words. Deleting a few should not be a big deal.
In fact, I’ve decided that I’m completely in favour of casual text.
I’ll write it quick, in dark offices, and forget it by the morning. I won’t get too attached to any particular paragraphs. If I see a sentence with its syntax all unravelled, it’s sayonara from me.
One day, I’ll be ready to commit to a draft. When that day comes, I can ensure my text is worthy of the commitment. But in order for that day to arrive, I have to be free to ditch whatever isn’t working for me.
Today, I’ve writ it and quit it. The section that was lagging has gone. Tomorrow, I’ll write something even better to take its place. But tonight? Well, I do still have Sharknado 2 on DVD…