Being a Better Writer: Less is More? The Art of Cutting in Editing

Welcome, readers, to something new!

Have you noticed what it is yet? I’ll give you a clue. Check the sidebar. Even if you had adblock, it’ll be a little different. Still not sure? Check the address at the top of the page.

Yes, that’s right. Unusual Things is no longer tied to another domain. Welcome, readers, to maxonwriting.com! Clicking the link, by the way, will bring you right back to the front page, so it might be utterly pointless to do so at this time. But Unusual Things now is its own site!

Which is why the ads are gone. I never saw them unless I tricked the site into thinking I wasn’t the administrator, but I do recall being quite annoyed with their placement (especially as they shoved my “Latest Release” box out of sight). But they’re gone now, because the site is mine, at its own domain!

Okay, they might be back, butat that point they’ll be ads choose, and in locations of my choice. And I’d be making the revenue off them, which isn’t a bad thing. As someone who hates obtrusive ads, though, you can bet I’ll be placing them where they will cause the least annoyance. Top billing here at Unusual Things is forever going to be the content I offer, like Being a Better Writer and my latest books.

Okay, some of you might be wondering what this means for you, aside from maybe some annoying ads vanishing. Simple: Unusual Things is now much easier to share.

Remember what the address was before? When it was at the wordpress domain? maxviking.wordpress.com. Not exactly the best (or easiest) address to give via word of mouth.

Maxonwriting.com, though, is. Max on writing, dot-com. Boom. Takes people right to the front page. Know someone looking for writing advice? Max on writing dot-com. Okay, it’s not as easy as Max viking dot-com, but I made the mistake of searching to see if that domain was open, and immediately someone snapped it up. So Max on writing dot-com it is.

Okay, I’m spending a large amount of today’s BaBW post’s lead-in on this, but there’s one more change that this opens up: Unusual Things is no longer limited to simple, straightforward web design.

First, immediate, caveat: I am not a web designer. I’ve done some graphic design stuff … but extremely tangentially, and I would not claim to be a graphic designer. Unusual Things‘ design is simple and plain, which is good … but it could look smoother.

Don’t expect any changes immediately. I have a few small ideas in mind, but right now, the site is going to stay looking pretty much the same as I experiment with the new tools at my disposal to see what I can and can’t do. I would like the site to look a bit cleaner and more professional, but I’m not about to dive all over giving it wild fonts and appearances. Unusual Things needs to be kept simple and clean above all else, easy and unobtrusive.

Right, that’s the news. At least, all the news for today. Check back tomorrow for even more news. Yes, I have been busy lately, why do you ask?

Bah, moving along! It’s time to talk about writing! Well, sort of. Editing, actually. Today’s topic is an interesting one from the list. I can’t recall when it got on there, only that it had to do with a discussion somewhere about the challenges of editing, but it was one of those topics that came up that instantly made me think: Oh, that’d be a good one to talk about.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what it is if you’ve even glanced at the title. Today we’re talking about editing, and we’re talking about one of the more difficult parts of it: cutting stuff.

I’m going to start right away by throwing down a gauntlet: You will cut stuff when you edit your story. If you don’t, you’ve probably done something horribly wrong.

That isn’t to say that your story won’t end up the same length or lessor, which is a trend I’ve unfortunately noticed espoused among some authors. They talk about how much they cut from their book during editing and how much shorter it wound up being, and yes, depending on your writing, this is something that will happen. I know of one author, for example, who has said that they cut between a quarter and a third of their books when they edit, trimming them down to size. And it isn’t that this isn’t a true statement. Dead Silver, for instance, I trimmed about 10,000 words off of when I was going through early draft editing.

But it doesn’t always hold true, I’ve found. Dead Silver lost 10,000 words. Unusual Events lost a few thousand here and there. But Colony? It gained around 5,000-10,000 words … after I had cut around 20,000. I can think of at least two whole chapters that essentially got full-blown rewrites to clear up sections of the story and make some technical stuff more clear. Which ended up lengthening the story rather than shortening it, when all was said and done.

Which is why when I said “less is more” in the title, I added that question mark, because I think if we simple drive down draft editing with “cut cut cut cut” we can end up creating a minimalist mindset among young authors. A mindset that may see them dicing up their own story and cutting out “boring” chunks without realizing what effect that’s having on the rest of the story.

Quick case in point: The Groot-lights scene in Guardians of the Galaxy. A lot of would-be critics criticized the Groot-lights scene using phrases like ‘pointless’ or ‘needless’ and said that it should have been cut, without realizing that the scene was there to provide a break point for the audience to catch their breath in the middle. It was a scene put there specifically for pacing, to give the audience time to stretch, unwind, and collect their thoughts from one massive battle before the final battle happened.

But those without an understanding of storytelling didn’t see that. They weren’t familiar with pacing, and didn’t stop to think what the tax of a straight half-hour battle sequence would be on the audience (if you’d like to go find out, watch one of the more recent Michael Bay Transformers films). And so they thought the scene should be cut.

And they were wrong.

Which wraps back around to why we’re talking about this, and the point I’m about to lead into. Editing and cutting truly superfluous material is important. But part of the challenge of doing a good editing job is knowing what to cut.

And let me take a moment and say that this is easier now than it was years ago. Thanks to the rise of digital books and the indie industry, editing is now easier than ever because we as authors can focus on one thing, and one thing only: What tells the best story. We no longer have to worry about publisher restrictions and rules about how long a book can be.

Ever read A Mote in God’s Eye? You should. Classic, awesome Sci-Fi. Anyway, the editing process of Mote was an interesting one because during it, the authors were handed a limit: Someone, either a chief editor or a publisher, wanted the book to be ten-percent shorter. If I recall the story correctly, something to do with the publication size or printing process. Now, most people would have cut a chapter, or a subplot or something, but not these two authors. They delivered the book exactly ten percent shorter by taking the average page count and then cutting exactly ten percent of the words on each page. A word here, a word there, reword this so we can cut two words. And they did this on a page by page basis.

Today, this restriction isn’t one you have to face. Print-on-demand, indie publications … you won’t have to worry that a publisher says “The cost of printing is too high, shorten the book by X amount” because you can forgo a publisher and make that decision yourself.

I raise this example because it’s a good example of being forced to cut things that didn’t need it for an external restriction. Since those external restrictions are mostly a thing of the past, you most likely won’t have to worry about them.

Which means we can focus on the most important bit of editing and cutting: Knowing what to cut. This isn’t to say that cutting for length and brevity isn’t good, for it is. Even now, locked in editing on Shadow of an Empire, I find myself trimming sentences here and there, whittling out superfluous words and “trimming the fat” of extra phrases or unneeded words.

But how do I know that they’re unneeded? And what makes them worthy of cutting over some other words, or even whole segments?

Again, this comes back to knowing your story. Knowing the genre, the style, even the audience. For example, if I were writing a YA novel instead of an Epic, my approach with Shadow of an Empire would be very different. For one, YA novels are generally a bit cleaner, more to the point, and shorter. And as a result, I’d be trimming a lot of the story as it currently exists, largely to cut out material that’s common in epics but not so common in YA novels (there’s a case for YA Epic, but that’s an exception). Scenes where the two protagonists discuss their next move over a quick breakfast? Those I’d cut, jumping right to the conclusion or a quick dialogue summary as the characters made ready to move out.

Changes like that would be made if my story were to be retrofitted for YA. But of course, it’s not, it’s an Epic, so instead those scenes with characters discussing and deciding what to do next while readying horses, or cleaning their gear, stayed. Because they fit an Epic, and they serve a purpose, bringing the world to life and giving the characters more facets for the reader to examine.

This is why I called trimming in editing an art. Because it kind of is, just in the same way writing is. For example, I may find that there are two sentences in short succession that say roughly the same thing. Clearly, I want to cut one of them, but which one do I cut? Which one delivers more to the reader? Which one speaks of the characters more? Is one more succinct than the other? Or does one of them contain some extra subtext despite a higher wordcount that means I should keep it?

When editing and cutting, the first question you should ask yourself is what cutting or not cutting will do for the story. Is the scenery description in front of you an important reminder of the territory around the cast? Or is it an exposition dump that tells far too much for the current scene? Or does it repeat to much of what you said before?

Again, the most important question you can ask is what the bit you’re looking at serves the story in. If you can’t find something that it’s good for for the story, be that in pacing, worldbuilding, character building … something … then cut it. Every sentence, every word, in your story, needs to have a purpose. When you edit, the stuff you want to trim is the aimless stuff, the stuff with no purpose.

Again, this can be tricky to determine and act upon, because it means having a wider view of the story. You need to know what you’re trying to accomplish, what the goals of including a sentence or a description are. For example, in Shadow of an Empire, something that comes up quite a bit is the roughness of the terrain around the characters and how dirty they get, because that’s an aspect of their traveling across this desert wilderness. The desert is a character almost as much as they are, and influences their decisions and actions. It builds the desert as a real place with consequences and an ecosystem of creatures and plants.

In other stories, however, such a focus would be out of place. Colony, for instance, sees the characters acting upon the ocean for the most part, and there are far fewer instances of the ocean setting being described as anything other than a backdrop (though only fewer, as those of you who have reached the end of the story can attest).

The point is that to Shadow of an Empire, these bits about the desert are an important part of the setting, built and shown rather than simply stated. For a different book, or a different focus, a lot of the grit of the desert, the hot sun, etc, could probably be cut and replaced with a generic “it was a desert.” But for what the book is going for, that doesn’t cut it.

Earlier I mentioned that this act of knowing what to cut and why involved your audience as well as your genre. And this is true, because what one audience loves may be what another audience does not. An audience for Epics, for example, isn’t going to mind two characters discussing backstory about the world (especially if its not overdone, neat, or most importantly, relevant to the story!) while moving from point A to point B, while readers of thrillers, on the other hand, will expect a strict rule of “if it’s not relevant to the situation at hand and moving us along the horizontal axis at a brisk pace, we don’t want it.”

Knowing conventions of genre and what an audience expects for brevity, exposition, etc etc, is part of knowing what you need to cut and what you should keep. Granted, if you kept this in mind while writing said work, you probably will be well along the path to hitting all the expectations of the genre/audience already, but when editing and making cuts, keep it in mind.

Right, I think I’ve just about talked this one out without going into too much repetition. Look for why a sentence or segment exists before you cut. Does it serve a purpose? If it honestly doesn’t, and you can’t find one … then yeah. Cut away.

But what if it does serve a purpose. Is it safe?

Well … no. Not entirely. Because sometimes even if it serves a purpose, it doesn’t mean it can’t be served elsewhere or by something else.

For example, some of the lines I’ve wiped in Shadow? They’re good lines about the hot sun or the dust and grit of the desert … but I’ve already referenced those things in other areas, or I have a character showing this fact already, so I don’t need to repeat it. Boom, trimmed. It’s not that the line didn’t serve a purpose, but that the purpose had already been filled elsewhere on the page.

In other words, something can serve a purpose that has already been filled, like having two stoplights facing one intersection when you only need the one. You can easily cut one of those stoplights down and use it somewhere else, or just put it away. Keep an eye on repetition when deciding what to keep and what to cut. And again, this is a bit of an art.

Now, earlier I alluded to an angle of this I wanted to address and talked about how with something like Colony, I ended up adding more than I cut. This was because what I cut didn’t work, while what I added did.

This isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes the two might not even be related cuts/additions. With Colony, there were certainly bits of “Nope, don’t need this, goodbye” that were separate from the moments of “Ooh, that’s poorly explained and a little confusing, let me rewrite that.”

Editing isn’t all cutting. Again, adding something in the editing process should follow a similar set of rules to cutting, primarily with the question of “What does this bring to the story. Why would I put it here? What would it do?”

Sometimes we’ll need to cut something that didn’t do the right job and replace it with something that does. A chapter in Colony concerning trying to decrypt a data-drive, for instance, didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to the first time around. It was … bland, to say the least, and didn’t accurately convey what the character set out to do. I cut it, then replaced it with what was intended to be a much more succinct and accurate rewrite … which then ended up being several thousand words longer than the original segment I’d cut, but at the same time was far-better received by the audience, to the degree that one Alpha Reader commented on it specifically to highlight how it made clear how frustrating trying to do something like that could be and explained how the processed worked in an understandable manner.

That was a cut followed by a replace that worked. I could have summarized that and cut it out entirely … but what I put in its place worked better than what was there, and served as a well-received section of the story.

Okay, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Recapping, the biggest, most important thing is not that you are cutting, it’s that you cut stuff that needs to be cut. Stuff that doesn’t serve any purpose, or fails in giving anything to the story, or even does it poorly? Cut it? Look at each questionable sentence/segment and ask yourself “What do you do for this story? Can it be improved? Is it worth keeping?” Do this for chapters, scenes, sentences, and even words. Trim where needed, clean things up. Tighten phrases and descriptions.

But remember the goal. You want to tell the best story you can for your genre and audience. Look at editing as an extension of that goal, of making sure everything aides and abets that objective.

So edit away. Trim, cut, and rewrite. All for the best story you can write.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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