How Do You Know What to Cut?

Last year I asked a number of beta readers to read my 120,000-word NaNoWriMo 2013 novel. After receiving an excellent critique from one of these beta readers, I shared with him how annoyed I was that I was somehow supposed to cut my word count in half. “What would you cut?” he asked. He understood that the novel had issues that needed to be fixed, but he didn’t think length was one of them. He couldn’t fathom how I could drastically cut yet keep the same story.

But I’ve done it. (Well, I haven’t cut it in half, but I’ve cut over 40,000 words.) When he recently offered to read the edited version of my novel, the question changed to, “How do you know what to cut?” My friend is simply curious and fascinated about the writing process, but many writers want to know the same thing. Lost, they wonder if they can cut and still keep the integrity of their stories.

It comes down to more than just correcting typos. Typos I can fix all day, and in fact, I was the queen of clean copies back before I took my first fiction workshop. Clean copies that weren’t all that great to read, as it turns out.

After my first story was critiqued, I discovered that I wasn’t the prodigy I’d always imagined myself to be. I assumed, at first, that people just didn’t get what I was trying to say. It was their problem. It was humbling to realize that they didn’t get me because my stories were a mess.

The credit goes to Ari, who led those fiction workshops. Much of how I write and edit today goes all the way back to those seven semester-long workshops that I took from 2002 to 2005.

Reading others’ stories and discussing them brought to light so many issues that are common among many writers, not to mention learning a lot of tough lessons when my own stories were critiqued. Ari has all kinds of pet peeves, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve written a sentence that starts, “As he went to the fridge” or “As she tied her shoes.” That particular type of sentence drove Ari nuts, and I guess it’s because it shows up so often. The point isn’t to avoid that one kind of sentence but to be intentional. Don’t fall into the trap of using the same sentence structure over and over again. You’ll find yourself on the slippery slope to lazy, sloppy writing.

Showing instead of telling was another biggie. (You can read more about that here.) I used to be the type of writer who had to describe the layout of every room and the outfit of every character. Was this necessary? Nope. That’s not to say that all descriptions are bad, but what you write must add to the story.

For instance, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, green eyes, and trademark glasses form a quick mental picture, and the scar and eyes have their own stories. But is it important to know what brand of jeans or what color shirt he wears? Do we need to know every single item he keeps on top of his dresser? Only the ones that may come up later. Why? Chekov explains it so well: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Eragon and its sequels are popular young adult novels that run to excess when it comes to descriptions and scenes that don’t move the story forward. Each book could easily be cut by tens of thousands of words. Some descriptions are helpful. We’re dealing with a fantasy world, after all. But too much bogs down the text, gives it a plodding pace. I enjoy these books, but I know I have to invest a lot of time when I want to read them. Not because they’re thick books but because there’s a lot of unneeded padding packed into those pages.

You may have heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (attributed to just about every well-known writer, and it’s because they all know it’s true). Does this mean that I need to cut every word, every line, every scene that I’m proud of? Well, not quite. But what it does mean is that writers often get attached to bits of prose that ought not be included in the manuscripts where they currently reside.

Ugh. But I worked so hard on that scene. The words flow beautifully. If there’s one thing I won’t cut, it’s that line…

I’ve been there and cut that. My trick to save myself from writer’s remorse is to save all major revisions as separate documents. Then I don’t feel quite as bad about nixing a line or scene when I know I can go back and paste it in again. Which I’ve done.

It takes a certain willingness to cut any- and everything that is not essential to the story. It takes a thick skin when you realize what you cut the first time wasn’t enough (even if it was a lot), and you have to go back and perform major surgery again. It also takes a certain editorial know-how, which may mean that you’ll either have to hire an editor or babysit your favorite reader’s kids for the next five years. Even if you’re a proficient editor, I highly recommend beta readers. (Just be ready to read their stories, too. It’s only fair.)

As Stephen King recommends in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, temporal distance also helps. Take a month off; then come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at the number of throw away scenes that seemed brilliant at the time but are really just filler – and conversely, the number of excellent scenes you’re surprised you actually wrote. (And while we’re talking about On Writing, which I highly recommend you get, King also gives an excellent example of a block of text before, during, and after editing, so you can see the actual process.)

You may notice, after coming back to your story after a break, that you don’t like your opening chapter. You don’t even need that first scene, in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe it belongs much later. Be open to not just cutting words out of sentences, but restructuring completely. We’re not just talking a face lift or a nose job. We’re talking vivisection. It’s going to be messy, and it’s not going to look like the story you started with, but as I reassure everyone who’s read my beta novel and liked it, I haven’t changed the content, unless I improved it.

Last, please read your text aloud. I know it’s difficult if you have a full house and little privacy, but you really need to do this. You will be surprised how good something sounds in your head but how terrible it sounds when spoken. You’ll notice where you start to bore yourself. Or if you read aloud to another person, you’ll see where you lose your audience.

In all of these ways, you can transform a story, for instance, that opens with a girl thinking about how scared she is and how much she misses her old life (and why) to a story that puts the thing she fears on her doorstep and makes her take action.

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