On Cutting


Well, as Sam says on his return from the Grey Havens, I’m back. My hiatus is done and I’m ready to deal with some magical words, though today I want to talk about getting rid of a few.

It’s a familiar problem, particularly for those of us who never met a word, phrase or paragraph they didn’t like. An editor (or friend, or beta reader, or the voice in your head that you generally manage to ignore) says something along the lines of “this is great, but it needs to be 10,000 words shorter.”

For the last few weeks I’ve been wrestling with an edit memo concerning my current WIP which required me to cut at least 5,000 and preferably closer to 8,000 words. “4,000 words?” I said. “Why do you want me to cut 2,000 words?”

Didn’t work.

Partly the issue was pacing, but the bottom line was that this is a middle grades novel and page count in this area is tightly policed, the later Harry Potter books notwithstanding. This week has already seen a couple of great MW posts from Kalayna and David about how real editors make books better so I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores of such policies today. Let me just say that my editor is very smart, very detail oriented and knows this particular market far better than I do. If she says the book is too long, then it’s too long and my job is to make it shorter.

That, of course, is easier said than done.

It seems counterintuitive, cutting words. We pride ourselves, after all, on getting them down in the first place. You’ve all seen the “Managed 2,000 (or 200 or 5,000) word today” tweets. It’s how we measure progress, even success, and since we all know that you don’t finish a book unless you actually write the words, it’s doubly hard to start ripping them out.

So here are a couple of suggestions to make the process easier. Make the cutting part of a larger edit whose goals are more than brevity. Yes, you may need to reduce the book just so that it has fewer pages, but a note to cut usually means that elements of the story need tightening, so the first thing to look to is those points in your story where it feels bloated. When you are close to the book, this can be tough to see, but it is easy enough to read for plot, say, attuned to when the main thrust of the narrative goes off the boil. It’s OK to have digressions, character asides, passages of description, even info dumps, but they have to be kept in check, and where you know a book is overlong, these are the first places to prune.

Now, I’ve cut much more from previous books that the 5-8K my editor wanted this time, and I know of plenty of writers who find themselves writing plaintive letters to their editors insisting that their book “just can’t get any lower” than 180,000 words. The problem this time was that this was my second edit and the book already felt extremely lean. My editor suggested a few short scenes I could trim or eliminate, but she had also pointed out things which needed developing or clarifying, and by the time I had finished adding to take care of those issues the cuts I had resigned myself to left me pretty much where I had begun, at 96,000 words.

Frankly, I was scared. The book had a lot of plot and my worry was that in order to keep the story intact I was going to have to strip mine the book of everything else, the texture which—for me—is the heart of a novel: character, humor, thematic reflection, description, atmosphere and so on. 5,000 words doesn’t sound like much, but I was afraid that the finished product was going to read like a screenplay.

So a couple of weeks ago I began the daunting process of going through the book phrase by phrase and seeing where I could trim the fat. Yesterday I sent the book to my publisher minus 6,000 words (go team me!) but—and here’s the important bit—I don’t miss any of them.

I know this because whenever I edit I keep another document open on my computer which I call Outakes or The Discard Pile. Into this document I cut and paste everything I remove from the earlier draft. Ostensibly this is because I might want to put whatever I just took out back, perhaps in a different place, or because (since I’m writing a series) what doesn’t work in this book might go into the next one. In fact, of course, I do this to make it less painful to cut stuff out so I can pretend that, rather than throwing my work away, I’m actually storing up nuts for the winter.

Anyway, I dutifully kept my Discard Pile document this time, but found that I didn’t transfer more than a handful of lines from the original into my winter nut store. What I cut was genuinely unnecessary and I’m not just talking in terms of plot here. It was also unnecessary in terms of texture, character, atmosphere etc. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my editor can’t tell where the cuts were made. Give me a month or two and I know I won’t.

Let me offer an example:

“Jim started looking around. The thing which looked like some kind of stone altar had begun to glow ominously, casting long, oppressive shadows in the dark wooden temple.”

Not great, is it? But let’s look closely at it simply in terms of making it shorter. First let’s get rid of those false-start verbs “started” and “begun to.” Completely unnecessary. Then consider that throat-clearing hesitancy “the thing which looked like some kind of stone altar.” Is it a stone altar or not? Does the scene benefit from all that hedging or can we call a spade a spade and move on? Next there’s the adverb “ominously.” Doesn’t the description of the shadows cover that? If so, cut. Lastly, if we’re trying to build a sense of mounting tension here, do we need to know what the temple is made of? If it’s about to catch fire, perhaps, but if not, get rid of it.

Version 2:

“Jim looked around. The stone altar was glowing, casting long, oppressive shadows through the temple.”

We’ve gone from 28 words to 15. The sense is pretty much the same, the prose is tighter, and the initial look now seems motivated by the glow (that’s why he looked around), which I like. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, and suspect I’ve actually gained something even though I’ve virtually halved the word count.

The precise nature of your trimming will depend on your habits (or “crutches” to use a Faithism) so I won’t offer more examples. (This post is, ironically, already too long )

My point is simple. Unless your natural style is extremely spare, you can do a lot to reduce your word count simply by coolly assessing what you really need, and—again—I’m not reducing “need” to plot points. You can usually keep what you want and still cut so long as you can escape the idea that every word is a little speck of gold dust to be treasured. The only way to do this, however, is to read the entire book very carefully, weighing each word as you go. It takes time and focus, but it works.


29 comments to On Cutting

  • I usually end up going back and adding words before I take them away. I tend to gloss over description and such in the first draft and have to go back in and add those things. At first, at your mention of removing the description of what the place was made from, I thought as a reader. I’d almost want to know that, to get a clearer picture in my head of what the place looks like. But then I thought of it from the character perspective and a whole different scene popped into my head. It’s usually something I do when I’m in the head of the character. What details will they really be seeing? Would he care what the walls are made out of when faced with a glowing altar? Probably not. I usually go with, if the focus character doesn’t see it, hear it, taste it, smell it, touch it, or think it, the reader shouldn’t be made aware of it either. If he’s too scared to care what the walls look like, then the reader won’t know what they look like either. Of course, there are places where I’ll break that rule for stylistic reasons, because I think in movie (there’s that picture thinker thing again)

    And you’re right, 5,000 words doesn’t seem like much, but it’s around 10 pages, give or take, in the manuscript, depending on font. And it is a lot of work, since you rarely find 10 pages to just cut out of the whole thing. A word here, a couple there…

  • I try so hard to get rid of those “false start” phrases, of which I am so terribly fond. I used hedging words like mad when I first started, but I’m better now. I’m getting ready to go into a (god I hope) final revision of the novel I’m about to send out. (Yes, I know if I get an agent and it sells, I’ll have more revisions, but that’s a long ways away!) I don’t think lenght is a problem–I think it is over 80k but under 90k, and for a first urban fantasy, that’s about right. But I do want to tighten it up some. As one of my grad student friends said “kill your darlings…” you know, those phrases, words, paragraphs, characters that we just love, but that, in the end, have to go? That’s the hardest part. I like the “cut file” idea, though, and I’ll certainly use it.

  • Daniel,
    yes, I think trimming detail according to character perception is a good rule of thumb. In this instance I’m assuming there are places for description of the temple (this whole example is made up, incidentally) before this moment. This point of the story is about the glowing altar thingy, so words like “wooden:” though they complete a visual just aren’t a priority for either the character or the reader. I’m all in favor of making things vivid, but that impulse should be subordinated to the sense and needs of the moment.

    I think “Kill your darlings” is supposedly a Faulkner-ism though I’ve also seen it attributed to Arthur Quiller Couch, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker. Stephen King reiterates it in On Writing. I am also better at at heading off the impulse to the “false start” phrases, but I still catch them a lot as I edit. I think it’s because the idea is not fully formed as I write the sentence the first time; I’m still finding the sense, and the false start phrase is a subconscious delay that helps me locate what comes next. That’s fine in a first draft, but I have to be alert for it when I come back through, and not just because I’m trying to reduce word count.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I tend to be one of those whiny, but-I-like-long-books people, but this is an excellent post highlighting how a book can be just plain better with trimming. A long book isn’t nice if it’s full of word mush. And thank you so much for the example. That really helps me think concretely about how I might look through my own manuscript for places that can be trimmed. Does the phrasing seem awkward or unfocused? Maybe it’s just got too many words. (And goodness knows I’ve got plenty of places like that.)

  • First of all, it’s nice to have you back, my friend. I hope that your time away from MW was productive.

    I know that what I write still isn’t as lean as it could be. I’m beginning to start sort of getting better, I think. But maybe not so much… Seriously, I convince myself that I have improved in this regard, and then I read through a story or manuscript and find that I’m doing the same old stupid stuff again. I’m trying to develop the discipline you speak of at the end of your post, the ability to go through a book word by word to see what should stay and what shouldn’t, but man, it’s hard.

  • Having a “cuts” doc where you put all your cut words is a great idea because it makes the trimming process feel less like self-mutilation. But I never pull cut words out of the document either.

    The reason I’m against going for daily word counts or boasting about how many words I write in a day is because I feel it tends to bloat the manuscript. I’d rather boast of how many words I could’ve written but didn’t because I took the extra minute to write an efficient sentence.

  • Welcome back, AJ. However, I’m afraid I have bad news for you: this post if too long. Please cut it by at least 1,000 words. 😉

    Seriously though, thanks for the reminder: it’s not really about ‘cutting’ so much as it is about tightening. That’s an important distinction.

  • Hep,
    glad it helped. And you aren’t alone. All writers find cutting hard. If we didn’t like words so much we wouldn’t be in this game to begin with, right?

    me too. This is a work in progress, as ever. And thanks for the welcome back.

    you’re right that daily word counts can lead to bloating (I believe there’s a pill for it), but I can’t stop doing them for exactly the reason you suggest: they make me feel like I’m making progress. That’s fine at the start, but then you have to change your standards of success, I guess.

  • I’ve been working on edits using Word’s “Track Changes” feature turned on – and I save this as a separate version before I finalize the changes to the document. It’s not quite the same as a “cuts” document, but it achieves the same puprose. On the story I’m working on, I’ve got three drafts, and each draft has between two and four change versions – so I’ve preserved pretty much the entire writing and editing process for the story. But this is a novelette, so I’m not sure if the process would transition well to a novel-length work.

    Incidentally, though – with each subsequent draft it had been my goal to cut wordcount… and yet… each draft ended up longer than the previous draft. I did cut a lot of unnecessary stuff. But I also added in more new material that clarified things, improved characterization, filled and smoothed the plot, and so on. I just went through the latest draft, and I honestly don’t have much by way of “false starts” as the example above shows. Several times, though, I found I was falsely obfuscating thoughts, emotions, and intentions… and this was making muddying up my characterization. Removing those false obfuscations actually usually involved adding words.

  • Stephen,
    yeah, unless I’m really focussed on cutting my edits tend to add word count. Track Changes doesn’t really help me because I find the page gets way too cluttered, and I find it hard to see punctuation etc. when I get multiple different versions layered on top of each other. The obfuscation note makes sense. The trick is to figure out what your idiosyncratic habits are so you can be alert for them.

  • AJ, I am so *very* glad to see you back with us! Lovely post. It reminds me of the *cut 20,000 words* rewrite letter I got from my editor for BloodStone. (shivers)

    I cut two 2,000 word scenes to use in the next book, and 14,000 words doing the sentence structure and paragraph structure changes you described. Madame Editor let me slide on the rest. And I learned to write leaner. Now I am writing leaner *and* faster. Yea, word count!

  • Welcome back, AJ!

    The segment you chose to share was a great example of trimming down to descriptive but lean writing. Removing that indefinite terminology and the false starts made a huge difference. It’s something we should all remember when editing.

    Faith: 20k word cut? Ouch, just thinking about trying to trim that much makes me cringe. Congrats on now writing leaner and faster!

  • Faith,
    yes, I’ve had those huge cutting rounds as well. Usually (for me at least) that means there’s something wrong with the way I’m thinking about the larger story, like I’m misrecognizing what it’s about and therefore confusing trivia with core features. Thanks for the welcmoe back. It’s been a while 🙂

    Kalayna, thanks!

  • Maybe you should try writing Middle Grades/YA emo fiction, then the words would cut themselves… ((Rimshot.wav)) Yes, thank you. I’m here all weekend.

    I have nothing worthwhile to contribute to this conversation, so bad jokes it is!

    Glad you’re back, AJ! 🙂

  • @AJ: Yeah, it does get cluttered looking – and especially it makes it tough to see changes to punctuation. But I’ve liked being able to see what stays and what goes both together in the same document. In some ways, it’s helped to provide a visual replacement for the wordcount-o-meter version of progress. (i.e. “Wow, there sure are a lot of red marks all over this document. I’ve gotten a lot done.”)

  • Nice to see you again AJ …

    When Raymond Feist first published ‘Magician’, he was asked to trim his MS by 10,000 words, which he did, one word at a time.

    Ten years later, after he became a screaming success, the book was re-released and he put them back in! Probably not the exact same words I’m sure, but extended scenes, etc.

    I’ve read both versions and I don’t think there’s a difference in the quality, but because I read the leaner one first the additions in the second stood out like a sore thumb and jarred me out of the story.

    It’s fifteen or more years later and I wonder what he now thinks about having done that?

  • Widdershins,
    that’s interesting. I can certainly imagine having to remove things I really liked and would want to put them back if I had my druthers, but it’s never really happened to me. Generally once I’ve cut them, I move on, confident (as with this latest instance) that the book is better off without them.

    as we say a lot here at MW, whatever works for you 🙂

    for a second I thought you were suggesting I wrote ELMO fiction. The Revenge of Mr. Noodle, perhaps, or A Fish called Dorothy. I can do Sesame street jokes all day…

  • Trimming isn’t that painful if the words aren’t very good. At least that is what I’m finding as I go through the revision process for the first time. I’m pretty certain that all I will be left with from a 90,000 word novel is a over-sized short story.

    I will look for these false start words now.

  • Count von Word Count: “I cut ONE word…TWO words, Ah-ah…THREE words…I LOVE cutting words! FOUR words…Ah-ah-ah!”

  • I tend to write short. In my current WIP, I am at 80,000 words. Okay, 80,380 or something like that. I’d like to add about 5000 words, just to hit 85, but I’m only going to do it if I see a really clear place where more is needed. It would be about 2 chapters for me (chapts for me range from 2000-3000, usually falling from 24-27) Places where I don’t adequately explain something, or tension needs to be increased with another scene or some more detail. I’m not going to add words by, say, just putting everything in the past progressive. 🙂 Though as an experiment that might be fun. 🙂

  • Welcome back, AJ!

    I’m a bit like Pea Faerie in that my writing may be a bit short (70 K, which is the low end for YA), so I may have to build up before I can cut down. But I like what you’re suggesting here. Are those words really necessary? I mean, unless you’re writing a NaNo? 😉

  • Pea
    I think where you are in terms of word count is good, and you’re right not to add just for the sake of it. This is an adult book, yes, not a (usually shorter) YA? At this point the only non-story reason to add would be if a publisher demands it, but you clearly have enough to approach one (assuming it’s finished, polished etc.). You’ll get ideas and notes along the way which wuill make you want to add. I wouldn’t bulk up words for the sake of it.

    Thanks. I don’t think 70K is on the short side for YA. Publishers seem to like short books right now, esp for younger readers. I’m currently working on a side project which is a middle grades book and has come in (first draft) at about 40K. I was surprised on poling other MG authors to find they thought this an adequate length, certainly enough to work from and submit. As I said to Pea, if you think the story is working as it is and you have polished it up, I’d be tempted to submit and see if you can get editor input before adding just to beef up word count.

  • MaCrae

    I too have what I fondly call a “crap bin”. It’s almost as big as my WIP and contains a lot of words that my poor brain blew gaskets on trying to write. Sadly, it’s in the Crap Bin.

    Anyway, I’m worried that my WIP is too long already. While I’m not aiming for the huge, whack-someone-over-the-head-lethal size of book, I do want my book to be, er, plump. I’m at 23 pages (Ish. My progress has been SO slow!) and my word count is over 11,000. Am I longwinded? Is my story simply too huge, or is this the “just right” word count? Or am I going to see an explosion of my beloved Crap Bin?

  • Macrae,
    I don’t understand these numbers. Are you trying to write a short story, a novello or a novel? 11,000 words might be OK for a short story, it’s nowhere near novel length, but I expect you know that, though I’m also baffled by “23 pages” at 11,000 words. Your font must be minute. I can’t tell you whether you are i teh ball park till you clarify what it is you are writing, sorry 🙂

  • MaCrae

    I’m trying to write a good sized fantasy novel and I have 23 pages written so far, from the beginning. I have two chapters and it’s in twelve point font. And it all comes to around 11,000 words. Does that make sense? Sorry I confused you.

  • MaCrae
    the numbers still seem a bit odd to me: 11,000 words in 23 pages? I’m getting just over half that. You might check the way your WORD program is counting. But that’s beside the point. At the moment you are no where near a point where you have to start worrying about length. Most adult novels are about 100,000 words. Even short middle grades novels start at about 35,000 (very roughly). I’d concetrate on teh writing and not worry about word count yet.

  • MaCrae

    Well, My microsoft Word Program IS old. It’s full of glitches. I didn’t know that adult novels were 100,000 words. For some reason I thought they were shorter. I guess I shouldn’t worry until it’s actually finished. Thanks for your help though!

  • MaCrae,
    maybe you are using a single spaced format. For submission purposes it will need to be double spaced. As you say, though, none of this matters too much yet. If you are concerned about length and–much more importantly–about story structure, I’d recommend you consider more plotting in advance so you have a plan with a shape.

  • MaCrae

    It has to be double spaced? Ppphbt, that shows how much I know. 🙂 Yeah, I am working on my story-structure and plot, but right now it’s just fitting the bones into the skeleton, I haven’t gotten any farther. (Which is kind of dumb considering I’ve been working on this for four years.)