The words you cut are the most important

A quick confession: On average, I end up cutting about 10% of my manuscript during the revision process. TEN PERCENT! Am I the only one that thinks this number seems huge? To put this in perspective, I’m nearly done revising Taken‘s sequel, and I’ve currently cut 14k (15%) from the story. With Taken, the novel shrunk by 11k (almost 9%) during editorial revisions. I guess I write rambling first drafts!

Despite the drastic changes in word count, I always find the shorter version of my story to be the richer version. The more layered, more intense, more emotionally charged. Even still, it’s difficult to not cringe when I think about how much I write, only to later cut. It feels like a waste of time and energy. But the truth of the matter is this:

Overwriting initially helps ensure I understand my characters, their motives, and world. It is only after overwriting that I can pare back and effectively craft my tale for the reader.

I’m going to take a detour real quick. Bear with me…

I used to design websites for a living. Never, not even once, did I open Photoshop, spend a day designing, and have a finalized layout for a website. Not once did the first round of designs concepts get approved by the client. I always had to go back to the drawing board, always needed to tweak, layer, redesign, adjust, and improve upon the foundation.

This never boggled me. How could I possibly know exactly what the client/company wanted their website to look like on the first try? I expected to design only to delete. And then to design again, over and over until I laid the right foundation and trimmed away all the unnecessary flourishes. After all, one of the things I heard often in design school was that a good design exists when everything serves a purpose and nothing can be taken away.

This could not be more true with writing. In fact, the origins of this piece of advice comes from a writer:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. —Antoine de Saint-Exupery

And this is why you shouldn’t lament the words you cut and slash from your manuscript. It’s the cutting that makes your story shine.1 Perhaps you needed to over-explain a world-building element before you could explain it simplistically (and in half the words). Maybe you had to do an awful lot of telling—paragraphs and paragraphs of it—before you trimmed back to the seemingly effortless showing. Or maybe you needed your characters to talk and ramble and internally-monologue before you realized their mere actions illustrated their feeling far more effectively.

You may have to do all that overwriting for yourself. You are trying to determine what’s necessary and what’s not. You’re trying to understand every last detail of you story so that you can share the right details—the necessary ones—with your reader.

So revise, trim, pare back. And remember that all those cut words aren’t a waste of time. They are just as important as the ones that exist in the final version of your story. They might even be the most important, seeing as they are the bridge that gets you to the good stuff.

  1. Obviously fixing plot holes, improving world-building, fleshing out character arcs, etc. are all incredibly important steps in the revising process as well. But when you reach the polishing stage, making sure every page on the word adds to the story, and that nothing can be removed, is critical.

19 Responses to The words you cut are the most important

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 21 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Is it cheating if I do all the telling and tedious overwrite stuff in my head, and then just write down the good stuff ?

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 8:08 am #

      Absolutely not! If you can mentally trim before you even type it out, you’re still going through the process: determining what’s important, what’s not, getting to the good stuff. (And I’m impressed! My stories are always such a mess in my head that I can’t even begin to truly make sense of them until I get the words on the page.)

  2. Susan Elizabeth Aug 21 2012 at 8:04 am #

    Great line about overwriting aiding character development. So true!

    I keep a “scratchpad” – a Word document where I paste all of the material that I cut out. I created it with the thought that if I ever need to put material back into the story, it will be readily avaiable. Turns out, I’ve never put anything back in!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 8:10 am #

      Susan! I have a “scratch” file as well. Actually, I write in Scrivener, so I have an entire folder dedicated to things that I’ve cut. But just like you, I *never* end up adding anything back in! 😉

  3. Vanessa Di Gregorio Aug 21 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Erin, I LOVE this post! I totally overwrite (and repeat myself! A lot!), but I also happen to really enjoy editing (which is probably why I can’t seem to finish my first draft). I think I overthink things too much, and I really should just write everything down, regardless of how much I’ve repeated myself, and just DO IT.

    Also, that quote is awesome. I’m adding that to the list of inspirational quotes I keep at the beginning of all my notebooks and documents!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 7:34 pm #

      Isn’t that quote fantastic?! I feel like it applies to any creative outlet.

  4. Angelica R. Jackson Aug 21 2012 at 10:07 am #

    The majority of things I cut don’t make it back in–BUT, they may find themselves recycled into another story. And my first book was waaay too wordy, because I indulged all the little tangents and subplots, along with needing to overwrite to find my way through a first complete draft. With my second book, I’m finding the writing tighter overall, but when I get to sections that I maybe hadn’t thought through all the way, then I overwrite as a way to nail it down for myself. But it gets trimmed again during an editorial pass.

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 7:36 pm #

      So smart to recycle cut sub-plots and pieces into other stories! Also, this: “When I get to sections that I maybe hadn’t thought through all the way, then I overwrite as a way to nail it down for myself.” Yes! 100% 🙂

  5. Alyssa Aug 21 2012 at 10:20 am #

    I really needed this post! I’ve been struggling with overwriting lately. I feel like I’m being too descriptive, but at the same time I feel like I need those excessive descriptions to help myself get a better hold on my characters and their surroundings. This helped me realize that I need to stop worrying and just WRITE, and then I can go back later and trim everything. At least I’m aware that I’m overwriting and I know I’ll need to go back and cut some things out, but right now it’s a crucial part of the process.

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 7:37 pm #

      Alyssa, I sometimes catch myself worrying while I draft as well. I start jumping back and revising the chapter and when I do this I spin my wheels and NEVER move forward. So yes, just write that darn thing. Write it in all it’s overwritten, rambling glory. Then make it shine 😉

  6. Megan Shepherd Aug 21 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Great post, Erin. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently; how when I read published books, they are often so sparse and direct, and then I read my drafts, and they are rambling and fluffy. It’s so much better to say something once well than to say it five times in a different way.

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      “It’s so much better to say something once well than to say it five times in a different way.” <-- Yes, Megan. Absolutely, yes. And it's so funny how it sometimes takes five failed, rambling attempts to get to that one, well-phrased and simplistic version.

  7. Alexa @ Alexa Loves Aug 21 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    These are very wise words indeed. I seriously think it’ll be helpful as I continue to write!

    • Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      Thanks, Alexa! Good luck with your writing! 🙂

  8. Sarah G. Aug 21 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    Fantastic post, Erin! I’m bookmarking this one for sure.

  9. JQ Trotter Aug 21 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    This is so true. I find a cut a lot in revision, but the end result is the better version. The first draft I always overwrite, for the exact reason you stated. I need to get to know the characters, setting, and underlying story line better in order to reveal it to others. Great post.

  10. Erin Bowman Aug 21 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    Thanks, JQ! I’m really waiting for the day I just nail it on the first try, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Failing (rambling and overwriting) is sometimes necessary to succeed (effectively revealing the right pieces of the story).

  11. Kate Traylor Aug 23 2012 at 12:05 am #

    I do my rewrites pretty much from scratch, so 10% doesn’t seem like much at all. I seem to have to get to the end of a long and rambling rough draft to know what the story’s about–then I can cut down the cast, adjust them to the appropriate ages if needed, set aside extraneous plot threads for later projects and write the clearest version of the main story I can. Trying not to get too attached to any of the words I write–I just keep telling myself I can always write more. 😛

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