Rewriting: Cutting the Fat

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
A fellow writer once challenged me to make one more pass through my manuscript and cut it by 30%.  Sound impossible? 

The problem is that when many of us cut, we reduce the word count by a word here and a word there.  We may cut a phrase or two or even a sentence. That’s good, but we need to remember to look at the big picture as well. We need to tighten the story as a whole.

In a novel, does the scene in front of you move the plot forward?  If not, it needs to develop a character in some important way.  Otherwise, it serves no function and it needs to go.  Funny scene.  Steamy scene.  Suspenseful scene.  Whatever.  If it doesn’t serve a greater purpose, it needs to go.  Yes, that means cut the entire scene. 

If you’re writing a picture book, look at it spread by spread.  How does a particular spread change your plot?  Your character?  If one of the two hasn’t changed because of what happens in this spread, you need to cut it. 

Look at each character.  Does this character serve the story in a vital way?  She has to do more than give your main character someone to talk to so your readers find things out.  What is her function in the story?  If she plays an active role in only a small part of the story, see if another, more active, character can take her place.  If so, she gets her walking papers.

Now look at the various bits of information that you tell your readers.  Do you describe a particular setting more than once?  Or reveal a bit of backstory two or three times?  Unless you reveal something more with the second telling, this is something else to cut.  This is what Margo Dill calls over writing.  We all do it when we want to make certain that our readers haven’t missed an important point.  One revelation should be enough if you do it in an effective way.

As we talk about big cuts (scenes, chapters or spreads), we wiggle in discomfort.  So much effort went into this, so many words.  Make cutting large chunks of text a little easier.  But them in a document labeled “cuts.”  If you need something that you’ve cut, it will be there waiting for you to retrieve it.

When you’ve made these big changes, print out a copy of your work and go over it one last time on paper.  That’s right.  Paper.  For whatever reason, my eyes often pass over unnecessary words on the screen but catch them when I read the same text on paper.

Even if you don’t manage to cut 30% of your word count, when you’re done, you will know for a fact that your piece is lean and mean. 


Sue Bradford Edwards teaches the WOW course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.  The next session begins on 7/7/2014.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Your tips are helpful, especially to me right now. I was thinking of a cutting a part--it seemed kind of draggy--but I reworked it. However, I'm still wondering about it. I think it moves the story forward/gives some background on the main character...or am I just hanging onto a scene that truly needs to be cut?

We'll see. Thanks for the post. This is something all writers need to keep in mind as they craft their pieces.

Margo Dill said...

And it's so hard, but most of the time when my critique group has told me to cut a section, they were right. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Cutting is really hard to do. I find that most often when my critique group tells me that something has to go, it is something that I've been wondering about myself.

Good luck with your rewrite and I'm glad you found the tips useful.


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