When You Have to Cut . . . A Lot

Thursday, June 27, 2024

In my experience, tight writing is marketable writing. In part this is because I write for the school library market. A biography for fourth graders may be only 2500 words long. Some of you write essays that dwarf that word count! But flash writers also face tight word counts. The cut off for a flash piece may be only 750 or even 250 words. 

So, what do you do when your draft is too long? One of the things that I discuss with my nonfiction students is how to tighten their writing. If it is only a little bit too long, searching out problem words and phrasing may be enough. These might include: 

START and BEGIN. At one point in my writing life, these two words were my personal weakness. I was always announcing that something was about to happen. “As the admitting nurse started to process his paperwork …” Nope. Just let it happen. “The admitting nurse processed his paperwork and …” 

These aren’t the only words that announce something is taking place. In your own work, you might look for ALREADY, EVEN, EXACTLY, FINALLY, JUST THEN, NOW, and SUDDENLY. I’m not saying that you should never use these words. Just make certain they aren’t hiding wordy construction. 

Another group of words that you might be able to revise away are imprecise words. They include ALMOST, APPEARS, APPROXIMATELY, BASICALLY, CLOSE TO, EVENTUALLY, NEARLY, PRACTICALLY, and SEEMS. Again, I’m not saying you should never use these words. When something isn’t exact, I must use the word approximately. But in general, it is better to be specific. If the noise “seems really loud” why not say that it “is thunderous”? 

You may also need to cut -LY adverbs. “Quietly walk” could become tiptoe. Is something “largely unseen” or is it “hidden”? 

Sometimes I need to cut one-third or even half of the total. That’s the case with the chapter I am revising today. Each chapter should be 500 words long. The first draft of chapter five came in at 760 words. 

I know that I can do it. But one of the problems with cutting a significant percentage of the word count is that the final piece often feels choppy. The best way to avoid this isn’t to cut. It is to start over. 

Whoa! Calm down! 

When I’ve already drafted a piece, I know where it needs to go, and I know I don’t have space for anything extra. If I start over again, my draft will be tight, and it won’t feel like something is missing. Sometimes I open a blank document and start from scratch. Other times I open a blank document and copy over two or three paragraphs at a time. Then I set about finding shorter, tighter ways to give much of the same information. I’m not sure why, but it works. 

How do you go about revising when you have to make big cuts?


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 55 books for young readers.  
  • To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.  
  • Click here to find her newsletter.

She is also the instructor for 3 WOW classes which begin again on July 1, 2024. She teaches:


Angela Mackintosh said...

Helpful post, Sue! Things starting/started is a huge one I see all the time when I'm critiquing. Suddenly always stands out, as well as ly adverbs. I tend to overwrite, so during revision, any thread or element that isn't touched on again three times is cut. I haven't tried starting over, but I think it's a great idea since the story is mapped out and it'll help with flow. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Interesting which things you see when you critique. I don't start over often but it can be a great way to keep from ending up with a clunky manuscript.

I tend to underwrite. I still look for things that I can cut and then fill in the word count with additional examples.

Renee Roberson said...

This is great advice. I had to use a lot of these tips recently as I was putting together a 500-800-word synopsis of my novel for prospective agents. It's tough taking 1,800-2,000 words describing all the main plot points of your book down to 800! I felt like I was whittling a piece of wood a little at a time and deciding which subplots could be left out. But like you said, it makes for a much for marketable read now!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Cutting down your plot to fit into a synopsis is brutal! Good for you on getting it done.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top