In my latest round of editing I focused on chopping out anything calling for cutting.
Here are some of the things I’ve noted deserving of the axe. If you’re looking to make your work in progress a lean mean reading machine, it might to helpful to have an eye-out for:
Scenes that can be told, not shown
In On Writing, Stephen King wrote about his wife’s critique of the main character’s back story in the early Bag of Bones:
There was also a two or three page section about Mike’s community-service work in the year after his wife dies[.] Tabby didn’t like the community-service stuff.
“Who cares?’ she asked me. […]
“He has to do something in all that time, doesn’t he?”
“I guess so,’ Tabby said, “but you don’t have to bore me with it, do you?” […]
I cut down Mike’s charitable contributions and community functions from two pages to two paragraphs.
‘Show don’t tell’ is a useful pointer, but don’t go overboard. Just because an event or bit of backstory needs to happen doesn’t mean it needs to happen as a blow-by-blow account. Is it particularly interesting in its own right, or is it only a thing that needs to be mentioned somehow?
Exposition – worldbuilding, magic systems
It’s easy to bog things down with lore about the world you’re excited to have made, and the details of the magic system you worry readers won’t understand.
It’s a novel, not a textbook. I know what my continents are called and the migration patterns of the world’s humanoid species through them, but who cares? It’s completely irrelevant to a story taking place in one city thousands/millions of years later. It’s okay to know more than you include – not every detail is interesting, relevant, or necessary.
In the case of magic systems, lectures about how it works can be a sign of lack of trust in the reader. It should be fairly clear what the rules are from seeing it used. And metaphysical rambling about the underlying mechanism is only needed to the extent it ties into plot, theme, the culture, and character.
If characters are discussing something not because they would, but because ‘the reader must know’, that’s a red flag. Imagine writing a story where two characters, born in London in 1990, talk about what a phone is and how it works.
I.e., belaboring exactly how characters are positioned and moving.
It’s good to use gestures to show emotions rather than telling them, and dialogue is better when it’s not bodiless voices in a void. But over-egging the pudding on that score adds pointless clauses here and there which slow things down, and add up over the course of the work.
For example, I had a line where a character ‘opened the door, stepping back to let him in.’ In context, that’s too much choreography for such an intuitive action. It’s not as though she was a paranoid character whose door had special bolts, or a criminal trying to push an illicit item under the bed with her foot at the same time. So I cut the phrase down, to having her simply: ‘let him in.’
This isn’t a script for an animation or a brief for an artist – unless the fine detail of position and movement matters for something, let readers fill in the gaps intuitively.
Repeating information at various points in the text, past the point needed to make it memorable, or past the point where anyone cares.
Excess small talk
When writing dialogue for the first time I try to let the characters speak for themselves, with a loose idea of where it’s heading. Once in the zone, their voices take charge, coming up with in-character comments I hadn’t planned that can significantly change what was going to happen.
But that leaves behind lines of dross that, while perhaps realistic to actual conversation, are boring to read, confusing, not that valuable for showing personality, and don’t lead anywhere. Cut.
A few other tips:
- Listen to the inner critic. When writing a first draft, try to ignore it and Embrace the Trash. When editing, it’s time to let it in. When the first-draft-mode voice whispers justifications for keeping something, listen to the other whisper still saying, ‘nah it’s crap’.
- Keep the original separate, so you feel less worried about losing something and later realising you need it.
- Cut-paste in another document to sort through large edits, so you can fiddle around without getting lost in the whole manuscript. This makes it easier to do things like stripping a chapter down to 50 words and inserting them six chapters ahead.
- Use chapter summaries. Short chapter summaries can help you recognise where something is complete fluff.