Vision: A Resource for Writers

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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:

  • Flashbacks and back story

  • Scenes with others

  • Repetition of events

  • Combining characters

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.

Flashbacks 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

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 version:

Full Version

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 intrusion.

"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?"

"Certainly, sir."  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 hectic ship. 

"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 alone.

"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."

"Sabotage," Martin said, drawing his hands back from the computer keyboard.  "I need to rethink this."

Short version:

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."

"Sabotage," Martin said, drawing his hands back from the computer keyboard.  "I need to rethink this."

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 the trouble.

Repetition of Events

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.

Combining Characters

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!

Step 2: Cutting words

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 even more:

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 two.

Final Step -- 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 short!  

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 off!