You’ve finished the first draft and now it needs polishing, but what to cut? The following checklist will set you on the path towards the glorious final draft.
Big Cuts: Slash These First
These are things to look for on your first pass, and you have so many passes ahead of you. Joy! If you thought that getting to the end of your story was the actual end, I have a bridge I’d love to sell you. Welcome to editing. The process of gleaning, re-reading, cutting, patching, and rewriting. Let’s start with these slashing techniques first.
Search for gems like action-forecasters, unnecessary ways that you are telling instead of showing the reader your character’s intended action. Here’s a 41-word example that needs cutting:
Ethel was nervous and really didn’t want to leave her hotel room without presenting her best self. She was going to get a cup of tea to settle her mind but maybe stop at the loo first to check her lipstick.
You don’t need to tell the reader what you plan on having a character do. Be the puppet master, pull the strings. Channel Nike–just do it. Let’s try this again with only 33 words:
With a satisfied nod, Ethel checked her lipstick in the hotel mirror. “God, I need a cup of tea,” she said to her reflection then strode out of the room, head held high.
Now let’s look for another over-descriptor cut–info-dumping or authorsplaining. Like mansplaining, authorsplaining is annoying. It’s when a writer spews facts all over the page thinking it’s adding authenticity when really you’re throwing an anchor out during a speedboat race. I know you’re super excited that you did a ton of research on the caliber and weight of that weapon, but honestly, we don’t care. Cut it, my friend.
“Hi!” she said.
“Hi back!” he answered.
“How are you?” said Becky.
“I’m good. How are you?” responded Todd.
“I’m good. Nice weather, right?”
Are you nauseous yet? I am. Don’t do this. You don’t need greetings. Get to the point. We’ll follow you without this insanity. Unless the above dialogue was code for something entirely different, it’s just dribble and again, think of an anchor flying out behind you at 50 mph.
Unless you’re doing it for comic relief, don’t throw flashback thoughts into the middle of an action scene. Rethink this. Why are you including the musing? Is there something you need to tell your reader? Then do it another way. Don’t make more anchors.
The blade came out of nowhere, cutting through the air with a whoosh. He thought about the sound and how it reminded him of a sliding subway door, specifically that one time when he missed the train to see Rita.
You can rewrite this better, I know you can. That’s your homework. Don’t tell me about the subway or Rita. Move on with the blade, for holy donut’s sake! What happened after the whoosh?
Smaller Cuts: Be a Pacing and Scene Doctor
On your second pass, check your pacing. Are your scenes all in order? Do you need them all? Really, I mean it. You might get away with cutting a scene entirely. Be honest with yourself, are there any gratuitous scenes that you threw in there for flavor or vanity and not to further the plot? Try these two methods and see if that’s true.
Go through your book and make an entirely new outline based on the writing you just finished. You did make an outline the first time, right? Good. Now put that one aside and make a new one. This time, with each chapter, make note of the scenes and write down the goal of each scene. What was the point of the scene?
Look at the forest you made, not your trees. Do you see any overlaps? Is the pacing clear? Are there any gaps? How about unnecessary repetition? Maybe you said something twice in two different ways. Here’s your chance to make a cut. Do it!
This one is fun, I promise. Start at the end of your novel and write down the goal of the scene. Start this sentence with a quick summary of the very end of your writing:
- ________________________ is what happened.
Now, go backward to the next-to-last chapter or scene. Using what you wrote in number 1 above, can you say this:
- (Use the sentence from above) happened because (put what happened in the next-to-last scene here).
If you’re doing it right, your next-to-last chapter should explain why your final scene happened. Do this again with the next-to-next-to-last chapter. Keep moving backward to make sure your building to the end as you make your way towards the beginning of the book. When you’re done look at what you’ve created. While you maintain a clean progression towards the final page, you might find scenes or chapters that serve no purpose at all.
Even Smaller Cuts
If you still have the stomach for this editing business, there are even more ways to whittle down your writing. Actually, there are really, surprisingly small words that seem like they are just like so unnecessarily used and feel like they should be cut.
Yes, definitely. You should cut them.
After you finish cringing, read this article. It will both guide and enlighten you. Best of luck with your edits, and, most importantly, congratulations on finishing a piece of writing. Be sure to take the time to celebrate this amazing accomplishment!