Chip MacGregor

September 30, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 7, The Machete


brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to “Editing for Authors,” the series where we guarantee you’ll be sick to death of the word “editing” by the end or your money back!

Most of the series to this point has dealt with editing that adds to or changes the manuscript– correcting grammar/punctuation, filling plot holes, honing your voice, rounding out characters, re-organizing information, etc. As important as these tasks are, however, one of the most important jobs of an editor is not only to add what’s missing, but to trim off the excess or mediocre content (“trim” here being a word which may mean “hack, chop, and/or slash away without mercy”). Being able to fix mistakes and add missing content is all well and good, but an author-editor needs to be able to recognize when the best course of action is simply to cut out a piece of text, and be mentally and emotionally prepared to do it.

Think about your manuscript like a garden. You planted every single seed in that darn thing, and watered and fertilized and sweated over it all summer, and now you feel an emotional connection to every living thing growing in there. The problem is, you mistakenly planted a bunch of weeds right alongside your flowers (or, if you’re weird, vegetables) and didn’t realize it until they were full grown and mixed in among the rest of the garden. Now, even though the weeds are choking out the flowers, you feel like you’ve invested too much hard work and time in them to pull them– okay, so it’s not the best analogy, but many authors do struggle when it comes to cutting repetitive, unnecessary, or inferior content.

It’s only natural– no one writes their manuscript thinking, “Okay, that was a great chapter; now I think I’ll write a mediocre one.” We usually like what we’re writing and think well of it, so when someone tells us our prologue is unnecessary, or we’ve put in too much description, or a certain subplot slows down the pacing too much and needs to go, our first response is usually to be defensive– “But my voice shows so strongly in that section! But I describe so well! But I love that minor character!” No author can learn to be a good self-editor without learning to harden his heart against the pleas of the clingy writer-persona and ruthlessly hack off material that weakens the overall manuscript.

“But what about my word count?” 

The first protest I hear from writers after suggesting cuts to their manuscript is almost always something along the lines of, “But my book is just barely _______ words and I’ve heard that’s the minimum for women’s fiction (or middle grade, or fantasy, or_____); if I cut all that out, it won’t fit in my genre anymore!” While it’s true that you do want to be familiar with the standard word count for your genre and stick as close to the median as you can, it’s silly to keep 10,000 lousy or superfluous words in your manuscript just so you can say it meets a certain word count. Books vary in length within every genre, so even if the “average” word count for a certain genre is 75,000, there are absolutely books being published in the same genre that are 65,000 words, or 70,000 words, or 80,000 words, so it’s just dumb to try to stick doggedly to whatever “average” is when cutting 15,000 words would make it a better book. I promise it’s better to turn in 60,000 great words than 60,000 great words plus 15,000 filler words sprinkled throughout, weakening the narrative.

Where to Start?

Obviously, you shouldn’t chop pieces out of your manuscript just so you can say you did– not every manuscript is going to need huge, 15,000-word cuts, but you ARE more likely to have extra content in your book if you are 1) a first-time novelist, or 2) writing a research-heavy genre, such as historical or non-fiction. That said, the following are some good places to start looking for excess content:

  • Prologues– often, a prologue is just backstory or history that YOU needed to know to write the story but that the READER doesn’t need to know up front– important info comes up naturally as the story unfolds, and bundling it up front just delays the start of the action. See what would happen if you axed your prologue, just for the heck of it– if you don’t miss it, get rid of it!
  • Excess information/research– just because you did a lot of research doesn’t mean it all needs to find its way into your book. Research should add depth and realism to a story organically rather than elbow its way clunkily into the narrative. Get rid of anything that doesn’t advance or enhance the story, even if it’s interesting or true or shows how smart you are.
  • Repetition– if you’ve included several similar scenes, such as driveway interactions with the crazy neighbor every time your protagonist returns home, or if your main character struggles with the same problem for an extended period of time, chances are there’s repeated content that could be excised. The reader doesn’t need to hear the main character’s doubts about her relationship every time she thinks about her boyfriend. The reader doesn’t need the same description of the crazy neighbor each time we see her. Do a good job of telling that piece of the story the first time and you shouldn’t have to tell it again with each new chapter.
  • Description– the amount of description that belongs in your manuscript varies depending on genre, but in general, less is more when it comes to description. If you start every scene by painting the setting in detail, you delay the reader’s immersion in the narrative and interrupt the momentum of the story. If you stop to describe every outfit or every room or every _______, you’re adding a lot of verbiage that slows down the story– pick and choose your descriptions, and go for shorter, more suggestive-rather-than-detailed descriptions when possible.
  • “Just for fun” writing– have you included quirky scenes that were fun to write but don’t advance the story? One or two for color is fine, but if every other scene is a crazy-cat-lady-neighbor interaction and they never go anywhere or add to the narrative, they’re weakening the book.

And yes, if you’re noticing a theme, you’re right: superfluous content can be some of the stuff that was the most fun or the most work to write– description and research– and so it can feel especially sad or wasteful to get rid of it, but if you let the ax fall on that extra fluff, your finished product will be tighter, more dynamic, and tell its story more effectively.

Thanks for following this series! I’m getting ready to wrap it up, so if you have any editing questions or strategies to share, chime in in the comments. 

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1 Comment

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Yeah…I just went back to a ms. that I wrote in 2008 and cut out 11,000 words. It was really hard to do. But necessary if I ever want to send this one out. I’ve had to cut favorite scenes..Like that scene in a different ms. that showed off my research so well because it talked about the ancient Babylonian curse, how they felt it was necessary to make a clay dog and do a ceremony by the river and go and drink beer without looking back at the clay dog, if someone was peed on by some random real dog. How cool is that? The dog pee curse. But yeah, I kept it for ten years and everyone said to cut it. So sad. But a good skill to learn, necessary.

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