Slash and Burn–Part I

Okay, so you’ve written a short story, or an essay, or a novel. You’re happy with it. You feel you’ve conveyed what you intended to say.

Trouble is, the piece is too long. It won’t fit the length requirements of your target market.

How do you cut? What do you cut? Where do you cut?

#1–How far over the limit are you?
This will determine if you’ll be tightening or cutting.

For example, if you’re 200 words over length for a 100-word essay, you need to cut. When reducing your manuscript by more than half, such a major reduction involves finding a new, better, leaner way to express your point. You’ll not only be cutting, you’ll be rewriting as well.

On the other hand, if you’re two pages over length in a short story, then all you need to do is tighten your prose.

#2–Avoid gimmicks and face the problem.
I once had a man ask me if he could shorten his novel by using one space between sentences instead of two.

When it comes to writing, I seldom consider any question silly, but this one qualifies.

Such gimmickry is evading the problem instead of coping with it. You won’t accomplish anything, and you certainly won’t find the solution you need if you don’t accept the fact that your manuscript needs streamlining.

#3–Know the editorial terms.
If you’re researching a potential market, and the guidelines say “5,000 words maximum,” obey them.

If you’re working with an editor and she says, “This needs tightening,” she doesn’t want you to slash entire chapters.

So here are the terms:

Tighten: Means to cut passive verbs and insert active verbs instead. Means to reduce usage of adjectives and adverbs. Means to eliminate rambling dialogue and excessive description.

Cut: Means to delete paragraphs, scenes, or chapters.

Small Cut: Means to delete only what’s repetitive or extraneous. A small cut could involve tightening a scene by removing the three paragraphs of dialogue that are moving the conflict off track.

Large Cut: Means to reduce sizable portions of a manuscript by eliminating the least important subplots, unnecessary minor characters, and excessive description; combining two secondary roles into one character; removing set pieces; and getting rid of too much background explanation.

When attempting large cuts that will significantly alter the size of your manuscript, make sure that you lop off background, research, explanation, and description first and remove any story-advancing scenes only as a last resort.


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2 responses to “Slash and Burn–Part I

  1. This is helpful and interesting. Along this same line, will you consider writing on how to add length to a piece without adding redundancy or losing tension?

    In this case, it would mean making small additions to a work. If you are a couple of thousand words short of a novel or a few hundred short on a short story. Where do you look to pad a story without adding bloat?

  2. Thanks for the question! I’ll gladly address how to add length in an upcoming post.


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