Occasionally (though not as often as my wife would like), I pick a boxful of books from my library and trundle them to the nearest Half-Price Bookstore, where they are sold. Invariably (as my wife will attest), I return with a few others I have bought. She puts up with this because the net result is less apartment space devoted to my books. It forces me to unpack another box of books from the back bedroom, and brings us closer to the day she can use it as a genuine guest bedroom.

On last month’s trek, I snagged a copy of Theodore A. Rees Cheney’s book, Getting the Words Right (Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1983). It has been in print continuously for nearly thirty years, so it may already be a trusty companion of yours; but it’s a brand-new discovery for me, and well worth the shelf of books I traded to find it.

Two paragraphs from Cheney’s first page have become a smoldering ember deep within my mind. I’ve been exploring the book for the past month, alternately blowing hot and cold over its detailed instructions for revision, but those two paragraphs keep kindling a fire under me. Here they are:

Seventy-five percent of all revision is eliminating words already written; the remaining twenty-five percent is improving the words that remain. Although experienced writers may do all kinds of revision almost as they write, they are apt first to try reducing the quantity of the words.

The Victorian writer Walter Pater said, “All art doth but consist in the removal of surplusage.” The secret is in knowing which words are the surplus words (Cheney, 1).

Michelangelo learned this. Eleven years before he was born, another artist began roughing out a 14-foot block of marble that was to be a majestic statue of King David, but he made a mistake: He chipped off a large chunk of marble on the figure’s chest that he did not intend to remove, leaving an ugly crease and bulge that ruined his vision for the piece. The sculptor found no way to fix it, so his botched attempt was abandoned for 36 years. On September 9, 1501 (the event is recorded in Florence’s official history), Michelangelo chipped off that bump and soon finished the project.

Reportedly, when someone asked his secret, Michelangelo said, “I just got rid of everything that wasn’t David.”

The removal of surplusage–it’s the secret of all masterful art, including masterful fiction.