Self-editing is a tool every writer should exercise. Even if you’re a slim first-drafter, that is, you need to expand upon feelings and details later, there is probably still room to slice out the mundane, the boring, or the repetitive. When we write novels, we do it in pieces, and it’s easy to end up with some scenes that are bloated and others that require more. Even if you still need to hone your editorial skills, here are some common cuts to make from your first draft.
Dialogue should demonstrate the personality, background, education, and age of your characters. You should use it to display these traits. Another great use of dialogue is to show how information is relayed—did someone lie? Did they really want to say more but couldn’t? Scenes with dialogue are fun to read because they’re fast-paced and have a lot of individuality.
That said, it’s easy to look back and find boring dialogue. Common enemies are adding in the pleasantries of daily life, like, “Hello. Nice to see you.” “Yep, it’s been a long time.” Yawn.
Another example of boring dialogue is talking over details of events that the reader already knows about. I’ve caught myself doing this a time or two. If something happened to Character A but Character B doesn’t know and needs to, Character A doesn’t have to be shown giving the play-by-play. Remember, the true audience for everything that takes place is the reader not the other characters. This would be a fine time to tell not show. “I told him what happened.” Then, pick up from the reaction.
In order to nail your setting or your protagonist’s career, you might have thrown yourself into research, accumulating many interesting tidbits along the way. While there’s no doubt detail makes your story feel real, it’s also easy to overdo it with unimportant details. If your main character is a doctor, by all means, share about life in the ER. But unless it’s pertinent to the plot, you don’t need to get into every detail of a surgery. Keep drama and tension at the forefront of your mind. If a paragraph or pages don’t contribute to it, feel free to leave it behind.
Other unimportant details can be the blocking of a scene. Blocking is the stage directions, or how the characters are positioned or moving around a scene. We want to know who is doing what, but make sure it’s not cumbersome. For instance, we don’t care that she stood, smoothed her pants, felt for her car key, grabbed her purse, kissed the kids good-bye, ran back in for her wallet, etc. Especially if this is just a general exit. When you include that type of detail, it seems like it would be for a reason (like it’s the last time anyone sees her) rather than your average departure. Ask yourself: who cares? If no one does, keep it simple and get back to the juicy parts.
The important part of self-editing is to be able to look at your writing with a critical eye. It’s difficult for me to do when I first get to “The End” because it takes so much energy to get there. Evaluating story, character, dialogue, etc, is hard, especially without time and space. However, these cuts that I’ve suggested should feel much less traumatic. If a scene bores you upon re-reading it, it will probably bore someone else too. The more you can direct your editorial vision upon your own work, the better your drafts will become.