OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was reading Stephen King’s On Writing that first put me on to the issue of whether I was a ‘putter in’ or ‘taker out’. I hadn’t been all that conscious of it before then, and the assumption I’d made, I suspect, was that I ought to be a taker out, and probably wasn’t taking enough out.

In fact, once I started to take notice, I soon realised I was a putter in. I do take out as well. Most of us, I suspect, do both, but most of us, I suspect too, do one significantly more often, and probably at different stages in the process, than the other.

I’ve run workshops on self-editing, and they have been based, when I think back, on ideas about what you should look for to take out: unnecessary repetitions, authorial haverings – ‘almosts’, ‘nearlies’, ‘not quites’ and similar litter my first drafts – reassuring explanations of what I’m not convinced I made plain in the words they’ve been added to. But there could be parallel puttings in: repetitions that create an effect, for example, or explanations that signal or imply doubt.

Are the potential puttings in simply mirror-images of the takings out? It’s difficult to workshop self-editing for putters in. With takers out you can simply take a piece (I use my own to avoid the problems of offence, or of workshop members knowing the piece too well to be fooled) and mess it up. You have to chose a piece, of course, that you have good reason to believe is effective as it stands. When I have done this there has been a pleasing conformity about what the workshop members have chosen to remove.

Taking bits out of such a piece, and expecting them to put them back in is, perhaps – that’s the sort of havering I meant – is certainly asking more than asking them to detect superfluous rubbish and remove it!

I suspect that, until our attention is drawn to it, we don’t think about putting in quite as much as we do about taking out. reading about other writers we find far more references to what has been excised, than what has been grafted on. Most of us have heard about the cutting out of Carver’s work; many of the first thirty or so pages of Lord of the Flies being removed, but where are the examples of those vital accretions that made a dull story sing?

What do we put in, if we are putters in?

Well, in my case, it mostly seems to be what I might call ‘manoeuvring’ material: phrases, sentences, paragraphs even, that point up, or prepare the ground for something that is already there, but which seems to lack the punch it ought to have. There’s an old physics experiment, done for young children: three bowls of water, one hot, one warm, one cold. You know the idea. Plunge your hands into the hot, and the warm, by comparison, seems cold afterwards. Plunge them into the cold, and the warm seems hot. Context is all, and nowhere more so when we are telling stories.

I put in contexts that heighten the impacts of the revelations they precede.

Sometimes takers out may be doing exactly the same thing. And there is a third way worth considering that involves neither putting nor taking, but which is simply that of re-ordering what is already there. This too can work at the phrase, sentence or paragraph level; can work, as might the other two, even at the level of individual words.

As with any other technique we become aware that we are using, we can learn to use it better. Or at least, we are likely to find ourselves using it more often and more fully. I have recently been working on a story that I couldn’t get right. Re-titled, re-written about four or five times, its original version was just over one thousand words, the latest, just under two thousand. And when you consider that I must have edited out maybe five hundred as well, that leaves a core story of something like a quarter of the finished product! A definite case of putting-in I’d say!

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