Posted in Writing

Dealing with Cruft


Cruft krʌft

  1. (computing, informal) Anything old or of inferior quality.
  2. (computing, informal) Redundant, old or improperly written code, especially that which accumulates over time.

Cruft is a computing term–

WAIT! DON’T GO! I promise this will be about writing, even if I occasionally delve into computers for an analogy.

In computer coding, cruft is the buildup of useless or redundant programming language, usually caused by incomplete editing, often resulting from tight deadlines. Let’s say you’re writing a program to automatically email a response to someone who leaves a comment on your website. You have two ideas as to how to go about this. You try one, but you’re not happy with the way it works. So you disable the first try–you don’t delete it, just in case your second try is worse–and try plan B. Plan B works great, so you save it, and you’re on your merry way. But that first attempt is just sitting there in the code, not doing anything, but taking up space.

The remnants of that first attempt is cruft. The program will work, and the end results may be just as effective as if you go back and get rid of all that redundant code. And that code just sits there, deactivated, taking up a small amount of space on someone’s hard drive, causing your website, or your computer, to run just the tiniest bit slower. A little bit of cruft is no big deal. But if too many of your programs have tiny bits of cruft, the cumulative effect can be noteworthy.

In creative writing the same process occurs. Let’s say you decide you need to delve into your protagonist’s reason for doing what she does. So you write a scene with her psychologist. The scene is well-crafted, and you love how the the snappy dialogue turned out–it’s actually one of your favorite scenes in the story. But now that you’ve moved on, you realize that her motivations are well laid out in the action of your story. But you don’t want to cut the scene because you’re proud of it–especially the great dialogue.

That scene is now cruft. It’s something that isn’t advancing your story–just taking up space. Now of course, this is a simplistic example. Maybe that scene still has a purpose. Maybe the fact that she can open up to her therapist but not her girlfriend is helpful to the story.

When editing, determining what is cruft and what still has purpose is one of the most difficult skills to develop. It’s only the most useless of description or scenes that has no purpose whatsoever. The harder line to walk is to know whether the bit of story is important enough to the plot, or the character development, or the texture of the writing to keep it.

It’s the difference between bloated writing, and tight, crisp prose.

8 thoughts on “Dealing with Cruft

  1. I have a few novels I’ve been working on off-and-on for a bit now. The one which I think has the most possibilities for future success is currently a struggle for me because I’m dealing with so much of this cruft. I actually have two completely different chapters which could begin the book and I can’t decide between them! I have waffled back and forth on this, have set it aside for months and come back to it just to waffle some more. One of these chapters would also work later in the book, I think, while the other can only serve at the beginning. I think what I really want is to find a way to make these chapters serve as the first two chapters.

    But then… I wonder if it really is just cruft and I’m hanging onto it because I like the prose or the dialog. A few weeks ago I tried to just write a brand new opening chapter and, unfortunately, I did so and I like it too.

    On the computers side… back in 1995 I was hired to create a new software tool for business customers. A week after I was hired I was supposed to go demo it (yeah, that was a week for the ages). Anyway, on the train up to the demo my boss told me to remove a feature he didn’t like. So, I commented it out and rebuilt it for the demo. We got through the first part of the demo fine and as we went to break, the customer asked if we would consider adding a feature… as it turns out, the feature they wanted was the one my boss had told me to delete. Lucky for him, I only commented it out… so by the time the break was over, I was able to demo the feature they requested! We got the signed contract that day. So… sometimes cruft is a good thing, too!


    1. You’re right, Rob. And the same can be true for fiction. It has been argued–sometimes by Neal Stephenson, himself–that Stephenson’s novel are rife with cruft, but that it’s that very cruft that gives his work the character it has. Although, to me Anne Rice’s later work is a much better example, as Stephenson’s “cruft” often plays into things much later in the book.


  2. There’s a balance between the extraneous bits of writing which enhance the story and characters by making the richer and deeper, and the crufty bits which are either left over from an earlier draft, left alone by a timid editor, or slotted in as give-the-reader-their-money’s-worth padding.

    This is why beta readers and editors are so important. Fresh eyes help to tell which is which.


  3. Guilty – but I deleted more than 100 pages from my first book and then deleted thousands more words after that. Much of it was cruft. Now I have a word to describe my aimless wandering. Wait till I tell my sons my techie vocab.


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