When I’m drafting a novel, I tend to over-write during the first round. I have to get everything out on the page, including more detail than my readers probably want or need. Later, I can look at the whole story and improve the pacing, smooth out any awkward writing, and streamline. If this is how you work too, here are some tips on making the process of cutting down your manuscript less painful and more efficient.
Keep in mind, your job is to tell the most interesting, dramatic, fully realized version of your story that you can, and sometimes this requires leaving bits of it on the editing floor.
Determine what’s essential.
Sometimes a character just needs to get from here to there. Your readers’ eyes will glaze over if you describe every detail of the journey and nothing important happens on the way. In one of my novels, the team is trying to gain access to an underground resistance cell. I’d originally written a couple of paragraphs detailing the process, but the whole sequence was dull and didn’t further the plot or character arcs, so I cut it down to one line. “It took Drew three days to find someone who might be willing to talk to them.” Boom. The reader knows the task was challenging, they know how much time passed for the team, and they know there may still be a problem with the contact – all in one line. Sometimes less is more.
Other times, you know you’ve written a pivotal scene, essential to the story. Good. Finesse it. Tighten it up. Give it the life and color it needs to engage readers, but keep it moving. If you’re writing an action sequence, it’s particularly important to watch pacing and language. Here are some ideas to help write the action: Kick Your Scene into Action!
It belongs, but move it somewhere else.
Many times, when I’m describing a character, or racing through important plot action, I dump everything on the page, all at once. Much of the information may be necessary, but I probably need to cut and paste instead of simply cutting in this instance.
It’s more interesting to reveal bits of a character’s backstory as they become relevant to current events rather than giving everything away at once. And speaking of reveals, dole out those crucial, interesting, or surprising pieces of intel with an eye toward timing and maximum impact on the reader. Think, “I am your father” from Empire Strikes Back.
As a predominantly science fiction writer, world building is an important part of my storytelling, but if I spend pages describing the economic infrastructure or the complex, interwoven ecosystem on an M-class planet in the Gliese system, I’m going to lose readers. Instead, I’ll sprinkle the important parts of the culture, ecosystem, religious structure, or geography throughout the narrative, as they become relevant to the story. Even if your story is set right here on planet earth, setting may still be important. Just be careful of the dreaded info dump.
Show the reader.
So much extraneous prose can be eliminated when we show what’s happening in our story rather than telling about it. Show don’t tell has become a writer’s mantra, and for good reason. When we do it well, our readers feel like they are experiencing the action, heartache, terror, or joy right along with our characters. I could write another whole blog post on this! In fact, I did. You can check it out here: What’s all the Fuss About Show vs.Tell?
Often, I’ll go back through my manuscript and search for long descriptions, an indication that I’m telling and not showing. When possible, I’ll replace the info dump with a shorter, more interactive scene.
In the first draft of one of my novels, I had a paragraph descriptor of the weather and the surrounding geography. Cutting out the extras, I showed my character interacting with their environment instead, which served to tighten the language and make the overall scenes more vivid. Here are the resulting sentences:
- The briny scent of seawater stung her nostrils.
- The ground under his feet vibrated with the sharp crack of thunder.
- The icy cold bit at the bare skin of her cheeks.
Watch the dialogue.
First, remember context. If your characters are fleeing the scene of the crime, they aren’t discussing the weather. Always cut the extraneous. Even when you aren’t as concerned with pacing for a particular scene, readers still only want what’s relevant. Cut to the chase! Here’s a great article on writing tight dialogue: How to Take Dialogue to the Next Level.
Cutting words and even whole scenes from our manuscript may be painful, but in the end, our story will be tighter and more powerful if we’re willing to do it.