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Shorten or Remove Whole Chapters, Sections, and Paragraphs

Read an excerpt from chapter 1, "Shorten or Remove Whole Chapters, Sections, and Paragraphs," from Getting the Words Right.

Deleting Whole Chapters
The first step in the reduction process is to search for opportunities to get rid of great chunks of verbiage. I’ve deliberately used the word opportunities rather than necessities, because revision should be seen in a positive light. It’s too easy to slip into a negative attitude toward it: “I know this passage is wordy, maybe even unnecessary, but it’s such a beautiful piece of writing. Why cut it?” It comes as a jolt to discover that entire chapters can simply be lopped. The newcomer to serious revision will have diffculty recognizing that an entire chapter has to go and, once recognizing the possibility, actually removing it.

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This is understandable; no one delights in throwing away something he has created. A chapter of any length represents many hours of planning and writing. That it contains some beautiful words, some important thoughts, and some amount of heart and soul, makes tossing it all away seem brutal. But the only thing that counts for professionals (not that they don’t agonize a bit) is whether the chapter does what needs doing. Does it move the story along or delay it?

There’s always the possibility that such a chapter can be saved and moved to another location. When professionals find themselves trying to reposition a chapter, however, they acknowledge the possibility that this is but a childish desire to keep a favorite toy. The chapter may simply no longer work (no longer do what it is supposed to do); cramming it into a closet of the story may merely postpone the day when it must be sent to the dump.

Of course, an unnecessary chapter doesn’t have to be junked immediately; you can save it in a notebook labeled “For Possible Inclusion.” I’ve found this a comforting bit of self-deception. Because I have a definite place to keep my verbal deadweight, a sort of organized attic, I don’t mind deleting it. Down deep, I know that anything stored in the attic will probably never again see the light of day—but I haven’t thrown it away. And, if I find a place for it (or a section from it) in a future story or article, it will be at my fingertips.

I recall well all these unprofessional emotions in connection with my first novel. The first chapter was a beauty. I had researched wide and deep, located maps of a particular river in China, talked with a Chinese man who had escaped from the Communists, and polished the result to a fine glow. After all, this was the leading chapter, the one that would hook the reader. By objective standards, it was well written. A professional writer (whom I hated and didn’t believe at the time) pointed out a problem—it did nothing for the story. He then sprinkled salt into the wound by adding that the story really began with chapter three. An entire year later, I recognized clearly how right he was, and I unceremoniously excised chapter one. Chapter three (revised to include information lost in the excision of chapter one) moved to the opening position; chapter two became part of a flashback within chapter five.

When I threw out those one and a half chapters, I realized that I had crossed over. I was now a professional—at least my attitude was professional. If I could throw away six thousand words and feel good about it, something must have changed.

When I submitted what I considered the final manuscript for my first nonfiction book for young adults, it ran to 50,000 words. My editor said it would be acceptable and that my final advance would be forthcoming, provided I cut it down to 25,000 words. My immediate reaction was that of the classic amateur: How could I possibly say what needed saying if I, in effect, dropped every other word?

Following the revision routines described in this book, I managed to do it and meet the deadline. I was surprised that I could do it, but what surprised me most was that in the 25,000 words excised from 50,000, nothing was lost (of course, the editor had known it all along). In fact, something was gained through reduction: clarity and ease of reading. Reviewers stressed how clear the writing was, and I’m sure now that they would never have given such positive reviews if the editor had not been so professional—and had not forced me to behave like one.

Deleting Whole Sections
In shorter pieces of writing, it’s unlikely that you’ll be faced with cutting out entire chapters, but it’s not at all unlikely that you’ll find it necessary to delete whole sections. A section is impossible to define, but let’s take for example an article that you’re writing for Writer’s Digest, say, on the art of revision. In your original discussion of style was a section on obscenity. The editor has just asked you to cut five hundred words from the article, and you’re desperate to find five hundred words whose absence won’t ruin the entire piece. Finally recalling that the piece is about revising nonfiction for corporate magazines, you realize that the entire section on obscenity can be eliminated—no one in his right mind would include a blatant obscenity in a corporate publication.

Having dropped that three-hundred-word section on obscenity, you discover you can get rid of the remaining two hundred simply by eliminating one anecdote that wasn’t too germane in the first place and crossing out a few adjectives that weren’t pulling their weight. Five hundred words gone and the reader doesn’t miss them. The editor is happy because your piece now fits the space allotted, and you’re happy because the editor’s happy.

Naturally, you have to consider carefully which words or ideas will be least missed. Even if your editor knows your original outline in advance, he or she is aware of how things can, and sometimes must, change in the doing—especially in the process of meeting length limitations. Keep an open mind about what “must” be retained.

If you are looking for ways to shorten a fictional piece, look for whole scenes that can be eliminated or shortened drastically. Suppose you have written a story about political intrigue in Washington, D.C. One scene focuses on a taxi driver sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons and listening with one ear to his cab radio a few feet away. It’s a well-written scene that gives us insights into the driver and the city, and you like it particularly because it grew out of notes you took several years ago while eating your lunch in a small park near your o;ce.

After further reflection, however, you realize that this little scene does nothing to move the story forward. The taxi and the taxi driver are never mentioned again and the main character leaves this cleverly described city never to return. You realize, as much as it hurts, that you included the scene primarily to show off your ability to write description. Recognize it, instead, as an opportunity to save a hundred words that you may use to bolster a weak scene later on—a scene that moves the story significantly forward.

Does it move the piece forward? is one of the questions most often asked in the writing profession. You might think that a professional writer would know enough not to have written in the first place something that doesn’t move the story forward. The problem is that it may well have seemed significant at the time. It is only later, in the context of the final work, that a writer—even a professional—can judge the significance of each component of that work. Hindsight is always more objective—and revision is hindsight harnessed.

One could argue that the first step in cutting unnecessary text is to properly determine the scope of the piece before you write it. If your planning of a nonfiction piece has been thorough and thoughtful enough, you’ve decided just how much of a subject you’re going to treat. Sometimes this will take the form, What am I not going to cover? After deciding on the scope of the piece and estimating how many words might be allotted to each subsection, you should not have to face the problem of cutting out whole sections. Even with the best planning, however, things do change with the actual writing, so you must be emotionally prepared to review your writing with hatchet in hand.

Deleting Smaller Sections
If chapters or whole sections of writing can be considered trees, cutting the weak or unnecessary sections will improve the health of the forest. After you’ve thinned the trees in your forest, it’s time to slash out the underbrush—paragraphs, sentences, and individual words that either strengthen your writing or weaken and obscure it. The reader will get lost in the tangle of words and won’t see the beauty of the forest if you don’t go in with brush hook and machete. A first draft almost always suffers from the tangles. In the throes of creation, we tend (in fact intend) to let it all hang out. Many writers would agree with E.M. Forster: “How do I know what I think, until I see what I say?” To clear the way for the innocent reader, we must tear out the deadwood and underbrush.

Often you’ll find you have gone on and on, well after the point’s been made. Perhaps paragraphs one, three, and five make the point perfectly clear. Diagonal lines through paragraphs two and four save a hundred or more words and at the same time clarify the matter.

You may slash paragraphs, even pages, because you find you’ve written disproportionately. You may know more about a minor point than you do about the primary and secondary points, so you write a great deal more about it. The relative emphasis or significance of a point is inferred from the attention paid it, so understandably, the reader may attribute more importance to it than you intended. A careful writer might introduce this minor point with a phrase such as, We now come to a less significant point, but one worth mentioning nevertheless. After a statement like that, it would be inappropriate to have two or three times the number of words dedicated to that point than to the more important points. (You, too, would be reminded of this simply by introducing it that way, and would keep the word count down.)

Although editors of nonfiction often encourage an abundance of anecdotes and quotes, there are times when writers can still reduce length by cutting out weaker examples; cutting out the too-cute anecdote that wasn’t very illustrative anyway; cutting down on the number of quotes; and shortening quotations by substituting ellipses for the nonworking words.

Fiction writers, faced with an absolute necessity to cut way back in total length, have another means of saving words, but one that requires greater thought: eliminating a character entirely. The character will probably be rather insignificant, but nonetheless one you’ve created and perhaps come to love. The trouble with pruning this kind of growth is that its vines and roots are intimately entangled with the entire story. It’s not simply a matter of screwing up courage and deleting every reference to the person’s name. Whatever relationships this character has with any of the other characters must also be taken out.

Such severely revised sections and subsections must be reviewed and repaired so the reader is never aware that drastic surgery has occurred. As great chunks of words and paragraphs fall to the machete, new words must be found to mend any damage done to the sections that remain. The goal is that when all the patches are in place, the length will have been reduced significantly—without lingering damage to the whole.

Fiction writers can search for opportunities to eliminate or shorten flashback scenes (too much flashback can create a “flopback”) and cleverly conceived but overlong internal monologues.

The hatchet can likewise be applied to the lengthy descriptive passage. Description can give the feel for a place or a person, but have you gone overboard? An objective scan of a descriptive passage may reveal one particular sentence that is so telling, so right, that it could achieve the effect all by itself. If one or a few such sentences stand out in a paragraph, give serious consideration to excising the rest.

Although dialogue is usually crucial to fiction, we must always ask ourselves: Is all of it accomplishing its purpose, or could some be lopped off, never to be missed? Does it move the story along (or do some other narrative work for the writer), or is it just interesting filler?

Long passages—even entire scenes—of dialogue can sometimes be reduced considerably by summary. The story loses immediacy when you switch from scene to summary, but sometimes it takes entirely too many lines or pages of dialogue to accomplish a small amount of narrative work. The only solution is to turn to summary. The following dialogue appeared in my novel, Day of Fate, but it could have been rendered as summary.

As Scene
I messed that one up good, didn’t I?” He barked a laugh. “Funny, when he suggested I was cabin-crazy, it hardly affected me. But when he as much as called you a liar—I was ready to go over the desk at him.”

“Don’t you know yet I’m big enough to fight my own battles?” she said, but her tone took all the sting out of it. “Thank you, D.L.”
He turned, and his face was bleak. “Three others took copies of the photographs. Maybe one of them will—”

“No, D.L., you might as well face it. They might have been polite, but they’ll do the same as Eldon with the pictures. The trash basket or the nut-case >le.”

“Damn it, can’t they see? The launchers are plain as day in those pictures.”

“They’re plain if you’ve seen the launchers. If not—those pictures could be a kid’s erector set in a bathtub. That camera just wasn’t made for underwater work.” She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “D.L., we’re going to have to give up on your government.”

“But …”

“If I get in touch with my magazine, this story could be in next Monday’s issue. I have enough credibility with the editor that he’ll buy it, with you, and Simon, and the pictures.”

As Summary
Samantha made it clear to D.L. that the underwater photographs did not show the missile launchers as clearly as D.L. was convinced they did. She told him to face the fact that his government was not going to help—they were going to have to go directly to her editor with the photographs, Simon, and him.

Although the summary lacks impact, character development, immediacy, and emotion, it leaves out none of the essential facts and offers fourfold reduction in the number of words (from 223 to 54). The writer has to decide whether it’s worth it. If the characters are developed fully before or after the dialogue scene, then this minor bit of character development might be dropped. If the emotional impact developed by the scene is crucial to the story, however, the writer may decide to keep the dialogue—or perhaps summarize to 100 words instead of 54. The point here is that this summarizing technique is available to the reviser, to be used at his or her discretion.

A final note about this reduction process: As you stand at a distance from your creation, searching for places to reduce words in major amounts, you’re going to spot all kinds of opportunities for lesser reductions, not to mention examples of poor style, spelling, and grammar. Don’t lose forward momentum by trying to deal with everything at once. Simply flag candidates for revision with symbols—stars, asterisks, squares, checkmarks, or verbal marginalia—that remind you to take a closer look later. (Don’t presume that the same things will pop out at you the next time through—flag them now. It may be weeks before you get back to revising at that level.)

Another reason not to complete minor reductions and revisions at this point is that your great swings of the reduction machete may eliminate an entire page, section, or chapter in which minor problems exist, thus making lesser revision work wasted effort.

It should be emphasized that although I’m describing these revision routines as though they were discrete, non-overlapping activities, they often are not. The experienced reviser engages in all these activities, but not so sequentially as implied here. Although some steps in the revision process certainly can be completed simultaneously, I recommend that you focus on making larger cuts before you get started on more minor repairs.

Find out more about Getting the Words Right.

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