Editing for Length
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
In general, stories are as
long as they need to be when you write them. Sometimes they surprise
you and the short story turns into a novel, or the novel becomes a
novella. Usually there is no reason to fight the length, and letting a
story flow to what feels right is often the best answer.
However, there are other
times when an author finds he has the perfect story for a certain market
-- but the story is too long. Editing for length is not as difficult as
it might seem. Even cutting a story in half can be done in some cases.
It takes a willingness to look at the story as something different from
what you first created, though, and some writers have a hard time
imagining the story as anything but what they have in hand.
Also keep in mind that
cutting too much can ruin a story, too. It is a fine balance between
finding pieces that can be removed from the manuscript while still
maintaining the core storyline. Even if a story looks like it would be
a good fit for some specific market, you might not be able to make it
fit. However, there's no harm in trying.
Always make a back up of the
original story. In fact, it doesn't hurt to make a back up at every
major step in this process, so that you can always take one step back if
you need to, rather than starting all over. Things that you cut may
turn out to be essential after all, and having the original so you can
get those scenes again can save all kinds of extra work.
Before you begin editing,
you need to define the core story. If the story is perfect for a
certain market, what makes it so? You must identify that part of the
story and make certain that no matter what you cut and rewrite, you hold
on to the core part of the story that defines these aspects of it.
For this workshop, I'm going
to give you all the pieces. Your exercise is to take one of your own
stories and try this technique -- especially if you have a story that is
too long for a market you would like to try for, or if you have
something you feel rambles a bit too much.
Step 1 --
Cutting the easy things
There are several types of
scenes to look for in the first pass:
If your story is about two
people meeting up after years apart, and finding themselves (again) in a
dangerous situation, then it will be easy to locate scenes that don't
add to the immediacy of the situation.
and Back Story
You might think that you
need flashback scenes, or extensive explanations of previous events, to
explain some previous encounter, but that's not always the case. How
they act now is far better than what they did in the past. Besides,
flashbacks take the reader away from the true story to tell a little
piece of a different one. If you are limited in word count, dump the
flashback and have one character or the other recall it in a line or two
somewhere in the story.
Scenes with others can also
sometimes be cut. If Drake and Martin are working on the space ship's
fouled computer system, and the Captain comes and takes Drake aside to
tell him more bad news, you can do it in the full version or the shorter
Drake looked up as
the door opened and found Captain Leslie stepping inside. He stood
up and saluted and then kicked Martin who hadn't even noticed the
"Captain, sir," Drake
said, just to make certain Martin understood.
"Don't get up Mr.
Martin. Drake, would you walk with me for a moment?"
Drake gave Martin one look of worry and warning, and followed the
Captain out -- all too aware of the guards who moved out in front
and behind the two, creating a cushion of privacy on the otherwise
"We have a problem,
Drake. We have another problem."
Drake glanced at the
older man, wondering what was wrong this time. The computer
malfunction was bad enough, but he didn't doubt Martin could get it
straightened out. Captain Leslie continued to walk for a few more
steps, then stopped and looked up and down the hall. They were
"We have a small hole
in the engine's reactor. And it was not an accident."
Dangerous, he thought
-- and then thought of everything else 'not an accident' might
include. "The problem with the computers was likely deliberate as
well. Someone doesn't want the Argus to reach Terra Nova."
The Captain nodded
and glanced back to the door to the computer center. "We are
keeping this quiet from most of the crew and passengers. I'll live
it to you to tell Mr. Martin, if you think he should know."
"He needs to know.
It will affect the way he looks at the problem with the computers."
"It's in your hands,
then." The Captain gave a quick nod, turned and signaled his men to
fall in again.
Drake stood for a
moment before he headed back to the room and Martin, who did look up
this time. "We have a problem," Drake said. "We have a problem
with the engines, and it isn't an accident."
said, drawing his hands back from the computer keyboard. "I need to
When Captain Leslie
came to the room and asked Drake to speak with him for a moment, he
had the feeling it wasn't going to be good. Less than five minutes
later he was back at the room, and met Martin's look with a nod.
"We have a problem with the engines, and it isn't an accident."
said, drawing his hands back from the computer keyboard. "I need to
That's the difference
between 333 words and 73 words. It also has the added bonus of keeping
the story focused where it should be.
One type of scene that is
usually easy to cut entirely or trim down is a travel scene. If your
characters are moving from one area to another, don't linger over the
details. Give a few key impressions and move on to the destination and
You've written three battles
with the enemy forces aboard the ship, but do you really need that
many? A good way to cut down the word count is to meld two of those
battle scenes, keeping any important aspects of what happened. This is
true for any sort of scene. If Drake and the Captain meet more than
once, combine the news where you can, rather than stretching out the
problems. If something does have to happen more than once, write out
the first incident, but keep subsequent ones limited to a few key words.
Extra characters can
sometimes be combined in the same stroke as clearing up the repetition
of events. If you have to introduce a character just for the purpose of
relaying some information or doing one little action, find one of the
other characters already in the story or scene to take on that job.
Short stories often do well with fewer characters. If you have a series
of people relaying information, trim down the number and let several
pieces of information arrive at once. The same is true for any
succession of events that requires to intrusion of new people.
Be certain to make a backup
of the story at this point!
In step 1, we cut out entire
scenes. If that doesn't bring your word count down to what you need,
now you're going to have to start cutting words.
The easiest words to cut are
'weasel words.' These are the words you find yourself using far too
often, and which don't add to the power of the sentence. My personal
list of weasel words are only, just, even and that. Keep
an eye open for these types of words. Start making lists of words you
over use and keep it beside you when you edit.
Now, however, we're going to
get into the more difficult part of cutting words. Let's say you have a
story that is 12,000 words long and you need it to be no more than 8,000
words. Obviously, that means cutting another 4,000 words. It looks
daunting, and it isn't going to be easy. You might shake your head and
say it can't be done -- but it can.
You might want to start out
by doing a search for 'ly' words in your document and seeing if you can
cut some of them.
Tom looked up and
down then street and then ran quickly across the broken pavement to
the doorway on the opposite corner.
Tom checked the
street -- then dashed across the broken pavement to the doorway on
the opposite corner.
That's 22 words versus 17,
for a cut of 5 words. That's just one sentence. If this is a frantic
scene, then cutting it down in length can help foster that feeling of
desperation and quick thinking.
Another word to check is
'the.' Sometimes it's not needed.
Mary looked up to see
the water splashing over the edge of the sink.
Mary looked to see
water splashing over the edge of the sink.
But we can cut this sentence
Mary saw water
splashing over the edge of the sink.
Mary saw water
splashing over the sink.
That line starts out with 14
words, then goes to 12, then 10 and finally 7 words -- which cuts the
sentence in half from the original line. The last one may be too sparse
for what you need in the scene. You don't want to do away with all
description in the story -- but if the line is only relaying a little
information, don't give it more space than it needs.
Also notice the cut 'up' in
that sentence. Lines like 'he sat down' or 'he climbed up' can often be
shortened to 'he sat' and 'he climbed' without the modifiers. In fact,
modifiers of all sorts -- both adjectives and adverbs -- are the types
of words you especially want to keep track of.
This is another point where
you may want to make a backup of the story. You can always delete the
various versions when you are done, but it's better to have copies at
each step of the way.
Step 3 --
Cutting more words
Okay, let's say you cut
another 2000 words by working your way through this. They really do add
up quickly. You've cut half of what you need already.
A story of 10,000 words is
going to be about 30 pages in double spaced print. The page count will
vary depending on how much dialogue you have, since dialogue usually
takes more space than narrative. You still need to cut 2000 words more
to reach the 8,000 word limit.
If you have a story that is
30 pages long, you need to cut about 67 more words per page. (2000
words divided by 30 pages.) This is a good time to print the story out
and go sit with it and a red pen. You've already gone over it several
times on the computer and moving to a different medium can be helpful.
At this stage, you're likely
going to find more than just single words you can cut. Often you can
take out an entire sentence or even a paragraph or two. Don't be afraid
to cut too much. It's better to come in under the word count on this
round than over it.
Work your way through the
entire story and then go back and type in the corrections. You may find
that you haven't cut enough after all. Go over it again, either on the
computer or on paper. By now you'll have gotten a feel for what to
watch for, and you may even find the work easier for the last round or
-- Reading and Adding
Sometimes when you cut
sections, you find that you have to rework another section to cover it.
You may have to add in a line or two -- so cutting more than you need in
the previous sections helps. Whatever you have to add back in, keep it
After you have done all the
cutting, put your story aside for a couple days and then re-read it.
You are likely going to find some rough spots, but you are as likely to
be surprised at how well the story reads.
Give it a try. Remember,
it's usually easier to sell shorter pieces to the big-name markets, so
this might be a set of exercise you want to try before you send anything