“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom,
subtract things every day.”
This quote jumped out at me from a New York Times article called “The Art of Adding by Taking Away,” by Matthew E. May. Matthew is the author of The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (now there’s a title to set your neurons popping). In his article, he also quotes educator and author Jim Collins:
“A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most important of all, a life.”
Think about the way the art of subtraction is harnessed effectively in creative endeavors. Composers use silence — musical pauses — to build drama. Dancers distill their movements in space into essential statements that release emotional power. A poet may cut whole lines in order to create maximum impact in the fewest possible words.
It’s fun and freeing when you are writing a first draft to put everything and the kitchen sink in — to write your heart out and onto the page. But when the time for revision arrives, it’s equally important to have the courage to take out what doesn’t work and doesn’t fit. The “discipline to discard,” isn’t easy to acquire or maintain. There’s nothing inherently exciting or sexy about it. Taking a scalpel to your work is a tough and unforgiving task — one that no one cares about except you.
And yet it can make all the difference. Precise, inspired cutting can make your work sparkle like a diamond. It can release its power in a way that wordy, noisy writing will never do. It can make silence speak. Now that’s writing dangerously! Write on.