Monday, December 2, 2013

Your Favorite Lines

In a recent class, we were reading Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," and comparing the two endings of the poems.  The original ending read as follows:  

Or whether the secret ministry of cold
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon,
Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow's warmth
Have capp'd their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,
Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty
Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,
And stretch and flutter from thy mother's arms
As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.

Coleridge, in revising, cut everything after "quiet moon."   We discussed the revision and why he had made it (settling on a resonance created with the reiteration of the "secret ministry" that begins the poem), but agreed that the original final lines were lovely (for many reasons).  At this, the professor said: yes, they are.  But it is often the case that one must cut one's best lines.

His words reminded me of advice I had received (and since forgotten) in my MFA program: if you find yourself attached to a line -- remarking to yourself on how much you like it, keeping it in, draft after draft, even as other things change -- then it is probably a line you should cut.  

Now, I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, but in general, I've found it to be a pretty good one.  And since remembering it, I've gone back over a few drafts of works in progress and made myself stop at every line that I really like and challenge myself: am I keeping it because I like it or because it is what the story/essay needs at this moment.  Generally, I'm keeping it because I like it, not because it is "right."  (This is, for me, particularly true of metaphors.  I come up with some comparison in my mind that just works and I don't want to change it, even when other readers point out that it doesn't work for anyone else.)

I hope that others find this writing tip useful.  If nothing else, it is yet another way to dive into a draft that you're almost done with a pay some close attention to language.


  1. Hmmm . . . I did not know of this editing. But these lines remind me of a few lines in another Romantic poem, where the poet describes his infant's reaction to the full moon. Coleridge again? Or perhaps Wordsworth . . . If you recognize the situation, let me know!

  2. Yes - that was Coleridge, I believe, writing about his son's fascination with the moon - how he wouldn't grow still until he saw it. Can't think of the poem right now, but I do know I read it recently.