Being a Better Writer: What to Cut?

Wait? Could it be? Is this a new post? A new Being a Better Writer post, back on its Monday schedule?

It is! Your eyes do not deceive you! I am writing!

Now, granted, this post will still probably be a little shorter than normal. My wrist is still a good ways from being normal. But hey, who cares? I’m back!

So, really quick, some one-sentence updates/recaps in case you’ve missed them before we get onto the post. First, if you’re a Patreon Supporter, check out the newest supporter reward, because it’s a short story! Second, if you’re Alpha reading Hunter/Hunted be sure you’re leaving comments so I can track the progress! Third, if you want to be an Alpha Reader on Hunter/Hunted let me know, as the sooner the Alphas get through the sooner Beta can start! And fourth, if you have suggestions for future BaBW post topics, post them so I can see about adding them to the list!

Right! News is done! So, let’s talk about editing. Because yes, that’s what we’re looking at today. Specifically, one of the most difficult parts of editing: knowing what to cut.

Look, I won’t mince words. Editing is difficult. I mean, there’s a reason why above I had info for Alpha readers on Hunter/Hunted. When you’ve just finished a story draft (especially if it’s one of your first) it’s your story and it’s perfect, right?

Well no. You know it’s not perfect. No story is, especially on the first pass. Even if you’re a good writer. This isn’t because you’ve failed somehow, but because writing is a long, complicated process, and the first draft is bound to be a little … goofy.

How so? Well, for example, you may find upon looking back over your story that you’ve repeated yourself on a concept more than once. A character explaining something to another character (and therefore the reader) may have forgotten this fact and explained it again later. Or you might have a scene that explores some depth of character motivation or story element that you later decided wasn’t worth exploring and decided not to, leaving this early branch as a pathway to nowhere.

Or crud, you may have just forgotten a minor detail like whether or not a character had a tool they needed and later built a whole sequence of events out of them having it when earlier they hadn’t.

Or one of a billion other possible problems. It’s not called the first draft for nothing after all. And most of us would agree that cleaning up obvious errors is simply a staple of getting a story ready to go.

But there’s a much harder, more difficult task ahead of anyone going through the editing process, and that’s the cutting. The shortening. The trimming.

Think of it like … topiary, actually. The art of trimming a bush or hedge into a shape. When we edit, that’t kind of what we’re doing. We have a bush (the story) that’s got a fairly defined shape, and we’re looking to refine that shape. Make it more clear.

So now, with that, there are some fairly obvious parts we’d want to cut. Dead branches, for example. Ones that stick out and distract from the shape. These are the “dead ends” of your story. The chapter that’s no longer needed for a subplot you cut, for example. Or a character moment that just confuses your Alpha readers. Things you either fit back into the whole or trim away. The obvious stuff. The stuff that is easy to look at and say “that doesn’t belong” about.

But that’s not all we should be trimming, and that’s where knowing what to cut can be a real challenge. Again, going back to the topiary example. after all the big stuff has been trimmed, the job isn’t done. The horticulturalist will continue trimming to bring out the shape of the hedge. A leaf here, a few snips there, all to build the greater whole of the final shape.

Wouldn’t you know it, but that’s a direct analogy for your editing. See, it’s not enough to go through and cut out the obvious jags and dead branches. We also need to “prune” what we leave. Trim it. Cut it. Sometimes expand, sometimes contract. Make small adjustments that bring out the core of the story we’re going for. Like an artist with a pencil adjusting a line ever so slightly to bring out the full beauty of the picture.

This kind of editing is a lot harder to do. It’s one thing to stare at a chapter that doesn’t really have relevance anymore and say “Sure, this can go.” It’s another to look at a bit of character interaction and say “Well … do I really need this?”

Part of what makes this so hard, especially for new writers, is that a lot of being able to say yes or no to such a question comes from knowing what your genre and audience expect. Because based on what your audience expects, some bits might be more or less important than others! So trimming a story down to fit that shape? Well …

Okay, let me use another analogy to explain it a bit more clearly. Have you ever seen two different artists with their own style draw the same character? Like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse? And even though both pictures end up clearly being that character, both have the author’s unique visual style to them?

Such a stylistic difference can even jump genres. Take, for example, any comic series that is adapted in Japan and turned into a manga. While the characters are still fairly similar, new differences in the way they look crop up because the genre is different.

In essence, what I’m saying is that when you look at your story and ask yourself “What should I cut?” you need to know what kind of story you’re telling and what your audience expects past simply making sure all you’ve crossed every t and dotted every i.

For example, if I were writing a fast-paced action-thriller, a long, slow paced scene of tension that last several pages of a character trying to avoid a foe hunting them as they move carefully and with purpose to escape is … not ideal. Because it’s a slow-burn tension sequence, not a fast-paced thrill moment.

Does this mean I have to cut it? Not the whole thing, no, but the moment itself could definitely be trimmed down to a few paragraphs or so to keep the pace quick.

On the other hand, if this several-page scene had taken place in story where such slow, mounting tension was desired, then all that would be required to do is look at each part of it and ask “Is this doing its job?” There may still be some trimming—after all, if you’ve got a several page slow burn, there are likely going to be sentences or moments in there that don’t service the greater whole,

That last bit there, about serving the greater whole, is really important to consider. A lot of times what I do when editing and cutting bits and pieces in my own fic is look at the line or moment that’s standing out to me and ask myself What is this bringing to the story? What is the purpose of this line, this moment, this scene? And if I can’t answer that question, if I can’t find a reason for that line, paragraph, or moment to exist, then it gets cut, trimmed, or rebuilt into something that does serve a purpose.

But again, I have to know my genre and my audience when I’m doing this. Parts cut from one kind of story may be perfectly in-place in another. You can’t just ask “What’s this piece doing?” You have to ask “What is this piece doing in the context of my story?”

What is it accomplishing? What is it doing? What does it give the reader? Tell the reader? Hint at the reader?

Is doing one of those things even enough? Can you combine it with another moment nearby to accomplish two things at once?

Now, before I close this, I want to point out something about this: A moment that is for the characters but otherwise isn’t for the story is still for the story. Don’t pull so far back in your trimming that you start to see characters or other elements as static pictures. A story is a living, breathing thing, as are your characters. A line that helps two of them move along or be more human? That serves your story and therefore the reader!

Okay, so we’ve talked a bit about cutting, but I can still hear a question from a few of you regarding knowing what to cut based on genre or the like. And the answer there is … read.

Seriously. Go out and read books. Stories. Tales. If you want to know what sort of elements to keep or trim in a murder mystery thriller, then read some murder-mystery thrillers. Look at reviews too! See what readers mention enjoying about the book, what the elements are that bring that about.

Then take that knowledge back to your own editing, so that you know what kind of audience and genre you’re angling for.

That’s it. So, quick recap before we close: Obvious edits are easy, but trimming is a lot harder. Learn your genre and your audience. Then ask yourself “What purpose is this bit—sentence, words, chapter, paragraph, whatever—serving in my story?” Then make a call on what to do with it.

Good luck. Now get writing!

Also, if you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting Unusual Things by buying a book or becoming a supporter of my Patreon Page!

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