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Wielding the Scalpel: What to Cut From Your Story

Got padding? Read on to find out how small-scale surgery can transform your draft into lean, salable fiction.

There are writers whose first drafts are so lean, so skimpy, that they must go back and add words, sentences, paragraphs to make their fiction intelligible or interesting. I don't know any of these writers.

The writers I know produce first drafts that range from slightly padded to bloated as a dead whale. At some point in their rewrites, they cut. A lot. But what do they cut? And how do you, in love with every shining word you've just generated, decide what should stay and what should go?

A previous column discussed excising whole scenes, so I won't repeat that. Let's focus now on smaller-scale cutting: sentences, phrases, words. Until you actually do this, you may not realize what an enormous sharpening effect judicious cutting can have on your story—and on the reader. Good reasons to cut are redundancy, over explanation, pace and literary effect.

Cutting redundancy
People do not like to be told something two or three times. It irritates them, because they are expending time and effort reading, but no new information is coming to them. It also undermines their trust in your story: Why is the author telling me the same thing over and over? Doesn't he trust his own words to have already made it clear? The author loses authority as a storyteller.

For example, what would you cut in the following paragraph?

Lucius watched through the window as Anna crossed the garden. He saw her walk its entire length, from rosebushes to tomato bed. She walked slowly, each step heavy as lead.

We only need to be told once that Anna is walking in the garden. A "heavy" walk implies slowness. "Heavy as lead" is a cliche. The paragraph's 30 words can be reduced to 17 (cut nearly in half!) without any loss of content:

Through the window Lucius watched Anna walk heavily through the entire garden, from rosebushes to tomato bed.

This version avoids irritating the reader with pointless repetition. However, one caveat: Sometimes repetition is good. If it's used deliberately to emphasize, it can be very effective, as in this passage from Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives:

Kit folded the T-shirt. "These things came out nice and white, didn't they?" She put the folded T-shirt into the laundry basket, smiling.
Like an actress in a commercial.
That's what she was, Joanna felt suddenly. That's what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real.

Quick Tips

Only give pertinent information once unless you're using repetition for literary effect. Redundancy undermines your authority and annoys readers. When deciding whether or not to include explanation, trust your readers to know as much as you. Over explanation is insulting. Pick up the pace by cutting any word, phrase or sentence that doesn't offer new information or emphasize a crucial aspect of your story. Cut out important connections to create suspense, surprise and increased reader involvement.

The point about the women being like actresses is repeated four times because it's an important realization for Joanna, and because it will be important to the unfolding plot. You must decide if the repetition in your story adds or detracts. Most of the time it will detract.

Cutting over explanation
Redundancy is saying something more than once; over explanation is saying something unnecessary in the first place. This insults the reader's intelligence. What would you cut here?

Seventeen people had seen the jet crash. However, Jacob needed not eyewitnesses but the plane's black box. That was the device which recorded everything that had happened in the cockpit during the last few minutes, and it would explain what had happened. It was key.

If you said to cut the third sentence, you're right. Most people know what a plane's black box is. Those that don't will learn it from context when Jacob recovers the thing.

The difficulty here, of course, lies in estimating what most people do or do not know. Do most readers of historical romances know what a farthingale is? Do most mystery readers understand the necessity of a search warrant? Are most science fiction readers aware of what happens near the event horizon of a black hole? In my opinion, the answer to all three questions is "yes." In general, it's better to assume readers know more rather than less.

Cutting for pace
Words that add no new information or aren't repeated for emphasis are just padding. A sentence may carry three or five or eight of them, each one as unnoticeable as an extra two ounces on your hips but collectively adding up to a large burden of fat. Ridding your prose of padding will pick up the pace considerably, since pace just means how much new information a reader receives per each, say, 100 words. Fat-free prose is cleaner, crisper, quicker.

How many words can you cut from this brief paragraph?

Carol wrote on the board with her chalk RULES FOR THIS CLASS. Behind her, some student in the class, she didn't see who, threw an eraser. It hit the back of her head. Carol whirled around to face the students and said angrily, "Stop that!"

Now look at the trimmed version:

Carol wrote on the chalkboard RULES FOR THIS CLASS. Someone threw an eraser; it hit the back of her head and she whirled around. "Stop that!"

"Chalkboard" implies chalk. We can surmise both that a student threw the eraser and that, because she's facing the board, Carol can't see who it was. If she whirls around, then we know without being told that she's now facing the students.

The "said angrily" is unnecessary because we know it's her talking and because the exclamation point implies her anger. So: 24 words instead of 45. Or, in novel terms, 90,000 words versus 168,000 words. The first may be a salable novel; the second is an unsalable and slow-moving mess.

Go through your manuscript and excise every word you can. You will learn a huge amount about what makes for good prose.

Cut for literary effect
This last reason to cut differs from the others in that you're not lopping off fat; you're deliberately omitting connections so that the reader can have the fun of figuring out the connection for himself.

Consider Harlan Ellison's classic science fiction story "A Boy and His Dog." In a bleak and desperate future, where even food is hard to obtain, Vic and his telepathic dog, Blood, have rescued a girl from a vicious gang. Vic and the girl become lovers. In an ambush, Blood is hurt too badly to travel on and is too starved to gain back his strength. The girl urges Vic to leave Blood and escape from the city. Here are the story's last six paragraphs:

...I held Blood all night. He slept good. In the morning, I fixed him up pretty good. He'd make it; he was strong.
He ate again. There was plenty left from the night before. I didn't eat. I wasn't hungry.
We started off across the blast wasteland that morning. We'd find another city, and make it.
We had to move slow, because Blood was still limping. It took a long time before I stopped hearing her calling in my head. Asking me, asking me: Do you know what love is?
Sure I know.
A boy loves his dog.

By not telling the reader explicitly that Vic has killed the girl so that the dog can eat, by letting the reader deduce that shock for himself, Ellison has created audience participation in his story. Surprise is greater, reader involvement is deepened, and less is definitely more.

To use this technique, focus on the climactic or revelatory moments in your story. Will cutting the actions that lead to results force the reader to deduce those actions? Is the story enhanced?

Two final caveats
First, none of these guidelines for cutting applies to dialogue. Dialogue characterizes as much by form as by content. If your character is a repetitious person who over explains, perhaps from pomposity or insecurity or loneliness, let her dialogue remain uncut.

Second—this must be said, however reluctantly—some very successful books are badly padded.

There are writers whose prose is redundant, over explained and too slow, and they are successes anyway. Why? Because they have other things to offer: exciting stories, fascinating characters, intriguing ideas.

So why cut? Because even if your story possesses these other virtues, also offering clean, crisp prose can't hurt. And if your other story attributes are good but not spectacular, clean prose and good pace may make the difference between a sale or a rejection. So wield that scalpel.

This article appeared in the January 2001 issue of Writer's Digest.

Nancy Kress' most recent book is Probability Moon, a 93,000 word novel, down from a much higher word count she'd rather not reveal.

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