The Hazards of Cutting

I don’t mean class. Although that can be hazardous, too. No, I’m referring to cutting words, as in out of your manuscript.

We’ve all heard it. Get your word count down. Less is more. Kill your darlings.  More than 100K is the kiss of death for a first book. Yada yada yada.

The reason we writers hear this is because we usually have words to cut. That includes published as well as unpublished authors. Except for a few freaks, most writers start with more than they need and remove the excess after the initial writing is complete. This is perfectly normal and even useful. Restraint at the beginning can go overboard and kill your darlings before they get born. That’s a euphemism for giving yourself writers’ block by preemptive editing.

TT: I’m a freak who starts with a little (usually dialogue) and has to add more, so if you intend to be offended by that word, well…get over it.

I absolutely agree that most of the time words can be cut. I think of it as the difference between Buffy the Vampire Slayer the TV show and Babylon 5. Joss Whedon writes with restraint, using few words and relying on his actors and the situation to convey meaning. Babylon 5 (and I do like the show) suffers from soap opera-like verbal diarrhea. It’s like the writers were told “never allow a moment when someone isn’t talking” and they didn’t. Boy, did they not. Too bad, really. It’s what kept a mediocre show with a big budget from being a good show.

Anyway, in the past year and a half, I’ve read a lot of really good books where my main complaint is they hurried me along when I wanted to linger a spell. Yes, I appreciate action and tension and all that, but some things are worth a pause in the action. Some concepts demand a moment of reflection. Some places require additional description. But I wasn’t given those chances to linger and it annoyed me.

I suspect the reason was word count. Somebody somewhere said to the author, “This part is kinda boring. You don’t really need it and it just slows things down.”

Thanks, anonymous. Should I ever meet you, expect a kick in the shin.

Yes, some scenes aren’t necessary. But sometimes they are. Sometimes that long interaction over a bolt of cloth is about more than the bolt of cloth (wink at … you know who you are). Granted, I can’t always see when I’ve made my point and now I’m just poking a dragon for no reason, but I refuse to remove scenes and cut words just because I can remove scenes and cut words. Remove enough scenes, remove enough words, and you’re left with nothing. Nothing is just as bad as too much.

It’s a fine line. I get that. Most people do go overboard and need to pull back. I’m just saying there are times when more is OK. Sometimes, more is great.

So cut carefully, my friends, and get more than one opinion on whether a scene is unnecessary. You’re writing to the masses and that includes us freaks who may want to linger in the world you’ve created. Don’t deny us because of word count.

About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn has published two novels and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

14 comments on “The Hazards of Cutting

  1. I prefer not to think of it as cutting words, but as sharpening my prose— sometimes by cutting stuff out, other times by changes and additions that make what is on the page more connected to the forward motion of the story.

    Remember if you cut too many words you risk turning a novel into a novella. Not where most of us want to be.

  2. Amen! Fat novel writers, unite! (And no, I didn’t just call YOU fat…I meant the book…oh, dear. It seems I’ve started poorly.)

    Anyway, I totally agree that nuance is a lovely thing, and if we as writers aren’t going to perpetuate the high speed, short attention span trends of our culture, we need to pause where it serves the story. But if we don’t want to hand fuel to the fire-starters who say everything needs to be served bite-sized, we need to make sure even those pausing passages are riveting in their own introspective, quiet way. Simple, right? 😉

    Thanks for your perspective that counters the masses. It made me smile. (Especially the kick in the shin part.)

  3. Alas, a fellow freak! I often start out with not enough words myself! Suzanne Hartman has a great series on her blog for “adding words”, but often, for me, it’s just a matter of fleshing out descriptions and actions.

    Anyway, I’m glad that you pointed out that some slow(er) scenes are necessary to help reflect on big emotion/action scenes. I’ve heard that a few times over a couple of novels and I kept thinking–but I need that relief (or rather the reader is going to need it!).

  4. I tend to be very wordy. In fact, I’ve been accused of having trouble getting to the point.

    I didn’t always use to be this way. Donita K. Paul seemed to think that my book (such as it was when she saw it) was downright anemic and needed emergency word transfusions.

    My high school teachers would be so shocked by what I do now, too! I cast them into many episodes of melodramatic despair over the fact that I couldn’t be made to understand (or made to admit that I understood–) that one measly sentence that said it all was absolutely not the equivalent of 5-8 sentences in an essay!

    Alas, here I am…

  5. Hehe! Surely a happy medium exists between too wordy and not wordy enough. Not saying I’ve found it. Just saying I’m looking.

  6. Winking back atcha, dear Turtle. I do agree that some books don’t allow the reader time to enjoy the scenery. My writing in the very, very beginning was anemic, and I had to go back in and flesh things out. But I took it too far, and before long my readers were calling it “wordy.” I think there has to be a balance. But by all means, you can’t cut everything, and if the bolt of cloth is more than a bolt of cloth…put the scissors away.

    • The irony about that bolt of cloth was adding it because another critter said “this part happens too fast. She needs some time to calm down.” *snort-chuckle*
      That’s why you need more than one person with one perspective reading your drafts. 😀

  7. There can certainly be a time where cutting words to hit an arbitrary word count crosses a line. This happened with me. The first version of my novel weighed in at nearly 170K words. Yep, that was one verbose book.

    The manuscript was reviewed by a publisher. Of course, I was told I should reduce the size. I was told to get it down to 120K words. I had to cut nearly 1/3 of my book! I was even given some suggestions of what and where to cut. Some backstory was dropped, two whole scenes were cut in favor of using them the second book of a planned trilogy. Version 2 was much lighter at 124K words. I really liked this version because the pace was much quicker than V1 and I learned quite a bit along the way. I was really excited. I asked the publisher to review it again.

    I was given praise about reducing the word count, but I was told I should get it down to 100K. Huh? Wasn’t I told to get it down to 120K just before? Oooook, I guess I had more work to do. I was given a few more suggestions. Out came the red marker to hack out more words, strip down some scenes and I even completely removed one secondary character and had the main villian pick up the slack. Removing the character was not one of the suggestions, but I thought I could make it work.

    Version 3 clocked in at 99K words. I was under the number I was told. The problem is…I hate this version. It felt like it was no longer my story, but the publisher’s. I had sacrificed so much of what I wanted in the story just to get the word count down to the publisher’s changing target.

    Killing your “darlings” to improve the story and pace is one thing. If you can do so and feel BETTER about your novel, by all means do so. If you kill a few and you feel like you’d never read your own book, you’ve crossed the line. It’s time to break out the defibrillator and resuscitate a couple of the “darlings.”

  8. I’ve heard that before. “Change this, change that” until it doesn’t resemble your book anymore. How does a writer handle that? When does change go from “good” to “bad?” Do you draw a line and risk being a “diva” or go along and risk being a “pushover?”
    Sounds like post topics to me. Or maybe prayer topics.
    Hope you kept a copy of the one you liked. 🙂

    • There’s a comic by Dave Coverly my mother found in the Parade magazine that goes like this. An author is sitting across from the editor. The editor has the author’s manuscript in hand and the editor says: “We loved all the words in your manuscript, but we were wondering if you could maybe put them in a completely different order.”

      That’s the ultimate in “change this, change that”, but it feels not too far off from the truth. Am I being a “diva” because I don’t want to cut any more scenes? Maybe. I have reasons behind everything I write. Some things may be there to simply showcase the abilities of the characters in a fun way. Many of these were cut because they didn’t harm the plot. Other items were left in as teasers for future storylines. They may not become clear in the first book, but they will become clear by the end of book three.

      In the end, I have decided to go the route of self-publishing. I will retain control of what I want to write.

      Yes, I kept a copy of the version I liked the best. I’m a little OCD when it comes to revisions. I have versions 1.0-1.3, 2.0-2.4 and 3.0. V3.0 is the one I hate. V2.4 is the one I’m working on now. I believe you read part of version 2.x. I sent v2.3 off to a freelance editor I know. V2.4 will be the end result of the grammar/punctuation changes and some subtle inconsistencies I need to iron out. This will be the version I’ll have published.

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