After all the work of getting your writing project to its full length, you don’t want to cut anything. But you must. It’s a rare writer who produces perfect copy in the first draft. You’re not that rare writer. Your non-fiction will have too much information on minor points. Your fiction will have too much description, irrelevant side stories, and unnecessary character development. Those are just some examples. Your wasted words may be of a different flavor, but they will be there.
You may be tempted to leave the extra words in. A longer work is a bigger feather in your cap. The problem is, it’s a gray feather. You’ll need to make the cuts if you want it to be a blue “first place” feather. One consolation for removing some words is that you will also find a need for more words. A description will be too short or a process will need more detail. This is why they’re called rough drafts. There is a lot of room for improvement.
Many authors tackle the add and cut problems in two separate revisions. First, revise by adding everywhere the writing falls short. This results in a longer piece and it doesn’t hurt your feelings as much to make cuts. How should you make those cuts? Popular wisdom says to cut big and then small.
You’ll find big chunks of writing to cut when you read your project for flow. A piece of writing has good flow when you are able to read it straight through without getting bored or confused. This is why a break between revisions is recommended. Familiarity breeds boredom and missing information can be hidden. By taking some time to work on another writing project or a different activity, you are able to return to your writing with fresh eyes.
You are the only one who can decide what to cut. Do you have chapters that develop a story thread you thought was going to be of great importance but only had a minor influence on the outcome? Did you write a chapter on a technology or methodology that is on its way out? Do you spend a lot of time with a character who was originally major but became minor? Is there any element in your writing project that increases the boring factor? Make those big cuts first and you will be ready to work on the smaller ones.
Unless you’re writing a nineteenth century Russian novel, long paragraphs are just not on. Editors and readers don’t like run-on paragraphs. Learn where to break them up. If a paragraph topic really is running to longer than a page, it’s saying too much. It either needs to be broken down into it’s sub-topics or there are repetitive statements to be cut.
Long sentences may also need a cut. Or they may not. Any sentence running for more than two lines should be examined. Could it be two sentences? Does it say more than it needs to? Is it using multiple words where one would do? Are there a lot of adverbs and adjectives? Maybe a definition sentence could shorten the long one. An example might help with this idea.
The Long Sentence
- One essential element of a good conversation is that neither participant segues into a long monologue of anecdotes and histories that the other can’t respond to.
Two Short Sentences
- One essential element of a good conversation is that neither participant is a bore. A bore segues into a long monologue of anecdotes and histories that the other can’t respond to.
Not all long sentences can or should be cut. Fictional characters may speak in run-on sentences because that’s how they talk. Some ideas in non-fiction may require long sentences to explain fully. The important thing is to examine all long sentences in your work for potential cuts.
Complex explanations are often complex because of bad writing. Fixing unneeded complexity may require writing more first. Break the idea down into its simplest parts and give a brief description of each. Then look for acrobatic sentences to cut.
Both fiction and non-fiction books often contain short stories or anecdotes to support the main work. How long have you made your sub-stories? Have you written a ten page history for a character that will only appear in the current chapter? Did you write a two page anecdote to illustrate a minor point? All sub-story lengths should match their importance to the larger work.
A few other areas you might want to cut:
– Long descriptions.
– Long narratives.
– Side stories that don’t go anywhere.
– Gratuitous sex scenes in a non-erotic novel.
– Run-on conversations.
Learn to do a good job of cutting and your readers will be wanting more, more, more.
Article by Ivan Izo.