Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cutting for Content

I've said before that editing is one of the hardest and least enjoyable parts of writing.  When you're creating a story from scratch, the process is exciting and fun.  Anything can happen, so you try to capture everything you want the reader to feel.

However, once the story is done, you start editing.  The first two types of editing are hard enough, but they don't make too much of a dent in what you're saying.  First, you try to make sure that what you've put on paper doesn't look like it came from a 3rd grader.  All the words should be spelled correctly, at least within the given context(in other words, if something is misspelled, you better have meant it that way).  Further, you should have the basic rules of grammar and punctuation down so the person trying to follow you can move easily from one point to the next.

After that's done, you move on to removing unnecessary words.  These are usually the adjectives and adverbs that sounded great in your head but now seem cumbersome.  To try and capture the spirit of the words, you may even re-write parts of the text.  "He ran quickly" might become "He sprinted," and "Jay stared hungrily at the voluptuous blonde model" might become "Jay leered at the blonde bombshell."  You get the idea.

You can remove a lot of stuff you don't need with this approach.  When I edited Salvation Day, I removed nearly 32,000 words through this.  Beyond that, things get dicey.  You now have to look at what content you should cut.
The truly shitty part of this is now you have to destroy part of what you created with your sweat and toil.  The story looks so perfect, and you need everything in there so that the reader will get what you've been trying to impart.  Unfortunately, back in the real world, this can lead to a long and meandering story that people will get bored by.  You have to comb back through what you've written and decide what is essential to move the story along and what is just window dressing you can do without.

I'll admit that I haven't mastered this yet and probably need help.  As a writer, I don't want to remove anything.  It feels like I'm being asked to cut off an arm or a leg, and, dammit, how am I supposed to go on like that?

An editor comes in handy in a time like this, and preferably someone you don't know and who doesn't give a rat's ass if you live or die.  Your friends and family (hopefully) love you and will have difficulty pointing out things they feel the novel could stand to lose, even if they try tactfully.  They don't want to see that crestfallen look on your face that says they've just pulled out your heart and run it through a meat grinder, so they'll tell you it's all perfect and would lose something if you cut out that little blurb about the time the main character had the runs.

An editor, on the other hand, can look at things objectively, from the point of view of someone who might buy your book.  They'll pick up more easily what can be left out, and they should have little compunction about saying that to you.  If you can't get a good editor, or are too cheap to afford one, a group of beta-readers can come in handy.  Honestly, I'm looking for a good beta-reading group right now to help me with this, so if anyone out there knows of one...

Ultimately, it's your decision on what content to cut, but ignore suggestions at your own peril.  One reader pointing out something means it should be examined and adjudicated; two or more who highlight the same points should be heeded.  A pattern of people is more likely to be right, so while you may feel free to argue a little with one point of view, you should lose that self defense tactic in a larger group(something I wish I took more to heart sometimes).

No, editing is not sexy, and cutting for content isn't fun, but it's necessary if you want anyone beyond yourself to read what you wrote, or even better, to pay for it.  People like stories that stay focused, and no matter how much you just know that this particular dialogue or background is vital to what you've written, if your readers can get the same message by you removing it, do so.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to hug my manuscript one more time before I hand it over to the butchers...


  1. This post is so timely for me. My baby is being mailed off to a content/developmental editor in just over 24 hours with a focus on cutting. The goal is to pull 25k-35k words from that manuscript like a dentist would pull molars. (It will probably feel that way too.)

    1. Jeff,

      I hope it isn't too painful for you. With luck, you'll have a story that will be even better.