Making the Cut

Are you a lean writer, never wasting words, able to bring your rough-draft manuscript in on length as precisely as a chopper pilot landing a Huey in the Vietnam jungle?

Or are you a florid, verbose writer, drunk on the wonder and shape and sound of words, seeking the most baroque imagery and the intense flavor of every metaphor you can find? Are you never able to meet assigned length? Do you, after the sublime joy of creation, have to butcher your manuscript to make it fit?

Perhaps you’re somewhere in between these extremes, the ordinary writer with good ideas that’s striving to convey them effectively via the written word.

However, we all come to a point where we’re required to cut our manuscript. My first novel sale, by the way, was contingent on my cutting the manuscript in half.

So … How is it done? How should it be done?

(No, shortening your story by deleting the second space after each sentence period is NOT how you do it.)

You begin by determining the following:

Do you need to make limited cuts or major cuts?

Limited cuts:

Sometimes known in the business as tightening, limited cutting involves combing the manuscript for what’s least important. Passages of description should be shortened. Rambling sentences should be trimmed or cut. Unimportant dialogue that’s not advancing the story should go. Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs likewise. Ask yourself what you would delete if you were paying by the word for publication.

Tightening should eliminate 300-500 words from a short story and maybe 1,000-2,000 words from a long novel. Consider it a painless tidying process.

Major cuts:

This can be both painful and challenging. You should again start with passages of description and explanation. Shorten them as much as possible. You should delete scenes that aren’t advancing the story. The least important character(s) should be removed from the plot. The least important subplot should be removed. Any book chapter that’s simply self-indulgent or a set-piece needs to go.

Always begin with the most conservative cuts and don’t remove parts of story unless length requirements force you to. Understand that the fabric of your story has been torn and will need to be rewoven. That means rewriting some scenes and transitions to smooth things out.

It’s important to keep your chin up during a major cut. You may feel like you’re tearing out your heart. You may feel resentful of having to remove a chapter that took weeks to research. Get over it. Remember that you should preserve the emotions of your characters and jettison the facts that you’ve dug up. Fiction is about your character’s heart, after all.

However agonizing the revision process may be, maintain your perspective. In a few months, no one but you will ever know what’s missing from your story. Meanwhile, you have a publication! Be proud of it.

If you absolutely love what you’ve had to remove, then save it for a different story.

Good luck.

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