Cutting tools

Tags: writing, editing, word count

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was engaged in the serious work of cutting my novel down to size. In fact, I reached my goal yesterday, and am now a little under 100K (update: see also my next post). I'm sure agents and editors would prefer even shorter, but I already had to make some painful choices.

I thought I'd go over some of the tools one can use in the exercise of cutting your work down. Even though these will be obvious to some people, if you haven't had to do a great deal of self-editing before, some may be new to you. The list below is ordered by what I see as potential low-hanging fruit, all the way down to the most work.


Break up the story

This is the first suggestion I received from others, when I said I had a book that was about 120K words. "Can you maybe split it into two books?" For this to succeed, you need to find out whether you indeed have two stories that can be arranged nicely into individual books. Do you have all, or can you create based on what you have, two beginnings, middles, and ends? Because you're probably not going to get away with the Tolkein Lord of the Rings trick of submitting a ginormous book and a willing publisher splitting it across chapter boundaries and calling it good.

If you have a book that is really multiple books this way, then this is probably the best option. It may or may not require tons of work to restructure things. But you end up with more books, which could mean more money (though also more risk, if it means a multi-book contract) for the publisher. If you can pull this off, what's not to love?

For me, sadly this was not the case. Although I had multiple plots, I could not see a chronological separation of them, nor could I find ways to make multiple stories with their own arcs around them. So I passed on this option.

Start later

This advice came to me after the initial version of this page. Here's a quote:

For many writers, the real story starts on page 50, because it takes most writers about fifty pages to warm up and get into their stories. But what you need to know to write the story is not what the reader needs to know to read it. Lose all the backstory and info dumping; get us to the action.

Now, I'd already cut a lot of the early text, but this was indeed something I had been concerned about. What I saw as the inciting incident of the story wasn't followed with action, and the incident itself was not action-oriented enough to be as engaging as I'd like.

So ask this question early on. If you can cut out the first 10, 20, even 50 pages, what will that do to your word count? In my case I had already cut enough that I only got about 8 pages, but still, that's over 2K words. I'll take it.

Merge scenes

This is something I did fairly early on. I found scenes where I said redundant things. For some writers, you'll find yourself doing this just because you're repetitive by nature. For me, it was because I approached this story initially as a fun exercise in a prompt-driven writer's group, and ultimately decided to work it into a novel. I ended up writing tons of scenes out of any sensical order, and then going back and drawing more inspiration from what I'd written, and other ideas I'd had, and pulling it together into a cohesive whole. But this was a messy way of going about a story, and I'd never recommend it to anyone. I would much rather have come at it with an outline, though I also don't know if I ever would have come up with such a story using a top-down approach.

In any case, here you want to find not just duplicated information, but any other opportunities to squash scenes together. If your scenes do two, three, or even more things to your story, then you're doing much better than if they only do one thing. Finding clever ways to bring things together accomplishes this while tightening the work and the word count. I did a good deal of this myself early on, where I found scenes with redundant information that I could just combine into one.


Remove unnecessary scenes

Consider this a corollary to the previous. If you can pull out that one important thing you actually did in a scene, and then toss the scene, you'll not only beef up another scene, but you'll drop all the excess word count involved in the set-up and tear-down of the cut scene. It's not really merging scenes, necessarily, just pulling bits and pieces out, sort of like eating the one part of the chicken you actually like (drumsticks are my top choice), and tossing the rest. I certainly did a bit of this.


Pare sub-plots

This is a tough one, but it can be huge as well. Look at your plots and sub-plots, and decide: do you really have to have that particular sub-plot? In my case, I yanked out 7-8K by removing most of a chapter that mainly progressed a sub-plot, and then I yanked more from scenes that tied into it. What did I do with it? As it happens, that sub-plot is integral to the next book, so most of it can be re-edited as part of the main plot of the sequel. So it's not such a loss, in that way.

You must overcome your fear of cutting to do something like this. Something I always do is back up old versions of my book, and when I cut scenes, I really just move them out of Scrivener's Manuscript node and into a special section of cut scenes, some of which are earmarked for sequels. Never delete anything! This greatly helps overcome psychological barriers.


Remove unnecessary sequences within scenes

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the next tip. Read through your work and look for unnecessary sequences. Maybe you have bits of redundant dialogue? Or over-the-top descriptions? I found lots of little bits of humor that didn't work all that well. Nuking them helped highlight all the humor that worked best, though.

Again, never delete anything. I saved these paragraphs into the document notes in Scrivener, and of course earlier compiled versions of my book contain them in their original contexts.


Hard-core wordsmithing

This is often the most painstaking, and it goes with the previous tip. I hand-picked over two dozen scenes that seemed like they might be too long and mad-dogged them. Paragraph by paragraph I eliminated clumsy wording, often reducing by a single word at a time, sometimes removing a handful of words. If I used three ways to describe something, I considered whether I could get away with two, or even one. Superior word choice dramatically compacts stories. This can be a terrific learning experience in the economy of writing and editing. You may find yourself spending a lot of time with a thesaurus to do this, though, and it's very slow going. The nice thing is that you come out with the same feeling you get after cleaning house: the dust and cobwebs are cleared and you can actually tolerate your loved ones seeing it. Everything is tighter, nothing looks wasteful.

Again, are you attached to some bit of wording? Archive it away as you edit. Nothing is permanently lost then, so feel free to cut.


So how much can all this add up to? Judge for yourself: between all the different techniques I mentioned doing above, I cut my book by 25%.

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