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Beyond the First Draft–More on Cutting

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mary asked for more on the subject of cutting when it comes to revising our manuscripts. As my former crit partners and current editors will attest, I may not be the best person to counsel others on this topic. But as I have sat through plenty of classes and workshops, as well as done and received tons of crits, I’ll try to pass along the advice I’ve heard over the years. I hope everyone reading this will post a comment with your take on the matter, too.

  • If you can, once you finish your first draft, set it aside for several weeks, if not several months. That way, when you come back to it, you’re fresher and will be able to be more objective about it.
  • This pains me to say. Cut as many adjectives as you can. (Ouch.) Adverbs, too. Do a search for “ly”–and click on “Find all occurrences” in the main document. It will select all of them. You can then highlight them or change the font color to red or hot pink and then as you read through it (on screen, anyway), you’ll see all of your adverbs. (Yes, it’ll mark words like only and family, as well, but it’s still really helpful). Replace adjectives and adverbs with strong, concrete, descriptive nouns and verbs. (See Showing vs. Telling—Puppets, Cartoon Characters, or Live Action? for some examples.)
  • While on the subject of finding and highlighting—do a “find all occurrences” for was and were. Sometimes these verbs are necessary. Most of the time, though, they’re a sign of passive writing. Was going is twice as long as went.
  • How much do you describe your characters and setting? (Another “ouch” for me.) Is all description necessary? This is where having crit partners comes in handy, because what we think might be necessary, they may think is quite unnecessary and drags down the pace of the story.
  • Do you have any scenes that are mainly just for character development, but don’t really move the story forward? On a recent round of crits on Ransome’s Honor, my crit partners dinged me for a scene that I love, that explains some background of William and his friends Collin & Susan—but looking at it objectively, it’s not really important to the progress of the story. It’s just a fun anecdote for William to tell his younger sister. Which means it needs to go (wah!).
  • I believe Sol Stein in Stein on Writing and Don Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel both state that most writers begin scenes too early and end them too late. Scenes should start in medias res or “in the middle of a sequence of events.” We don’t need to see the character getting out of bed, taking a shower, brushing his teeth, getting dressed, fixing breakfast, and then getting into the car. A scene with greater impact is to open with the character in his car, juggling his toast, cell phone, and coffee, and then suddenly careening off the side of the road. So see if you can cut scenes down by starting them later. Make sure you then end the scene quickly and efficiently—preferably with a hook. Drop a bomb and then drop the curtain. Leave the reader wanting more.
  • Do you use “he said” dialogue tags with most of your dialogue—and have action going along with the dialogue? In most places, you’ll find that you can cut the “said” dialogue tags and still keep the speaker attribution clear with the action going on with the dialogue.

All right—now it’s y’all’s turn. When you edit, how do you tighten everything up and cut your prose down to a polished flow?

  1. Thursday, August 30, 2007 10:04 am

    Last October I cut more than 10K from a ms in order to get it down to the wordcount required by the editor who requested it.

    Your first point rings so true. That ms had sat untouched for more than a year. When it comes to trimming your own work, distance and objectivity is a must. Also, for me, a year’s worth of growth in writing showed up. There were many ‘newbie’ extraneous words that needed cutting.

    But it is hard to cut 10K words a couple at a time. If you need to cut that much, it’s time to look at entire scenes.

    I looked for scenes that I loved but that didn’t advance the plot. There was one long scene at the end of the book that only drew things out but didn’t really aid in the conclusion. That baby had to go, 4K words in one swoop. And the story reads better for it.

    Also, look for characters you can combine. Give one person the job of two, then you can cut down on the descriptions, the POV scenes, the background info of an entire person.

    Ask yourself, when reading a scene, what dramatic question has been asked or answered that advances the plot. If you can’t find one…that scene might need to go.

    If all else fails, get someone else to look at it. Another set of eyes always helps.


  2. Friday, August 31, 2007 8:22 am

    Kaye, seriously, you and I are going to balance one another out someday! I have a tendency to write sparse, then have to beef it up later. It was all those journalism classes. Anyway, I go by this rule of thumb: each scene must have a goal, motivation, and conflict. If it doesn’t contain each of those things, cut it. And I love that quote about arriving in a scene late and leaving early. YAY for crit buds!


  3. Sunday, September 2, 2007 3:57 pm

    Thanks, Kaye, these are great tips. I’ve used the find feature, but haven’t known about the highlight option–that will help so much. Also glad for the reminder from Stein and Maass…I can see that I just might have a problem with starting scenes too early!


  4. Sunday, September 2, 2007 4:25 pm

    As I said, I can report what I’ve learned about cutting, but I may not be great at it.

    I, too, am really bad about starting scenes too early. I have a couple of them in Ransome’s Honor that start with the heroine waking up in the morning and getting ready for the day—then moving into the part of the scene that’s important after a page and a half of introspection that could be greatly condensed into more active scenes.



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