An exercise in succinctness

As writers, one of the most difficult things we do is cut out the superfluous parts, whether it’s threads that just don’t fit the plot, extraneous words, or those scenes we absolutely love but have readers mumbling, “Say what?” 

For a recent contest entry, I had to cut my 21,000 word novella down to fit the less than 10k requirement.  Oh yeah, that meant doing away with the equivalent of every other word, and then some.  OUCH!!  Obviously, I kept my original version safe in its own cozy little file, but the experience taught me a lot about editing.  I thought I’d share what I learned here, as an exercise for those interested in sharpening their editorial pens until it hurts.

An Exercise in Succinctness
1.  Copy a chapter from your favorite ebook into your word processor, or you can use a polished chapter you’ve written yourself.  (If it’s your work, make sure it’s a copy, because you’re not normally going to cut it back this far, and I don’t want a cussing for making you hack out your favorite parts. 🙂 )  Something between 2,000 and 5,000 words would be best, so you can get the experience without banging your head against the wall.   

2.  Write down the beginning word count, then aim to cut it in half.

3.  Think bare bones.  What are the essential elements of the story/chapter, the parts you absolutely can’t do without?  Keep those in mind, or jot down notes on what you have to keep.

4.  Do NOT cut out the flavor.  Even with half the wording, the characters still have to come alive, along with their actions, the setting, and dialog.  You’ll still need descriptiveness, just think of the least wordy way to get the feelings and images across.

5.  Take your time with this, you’re not on the clock.  The more you work on this exercise, the more you’ll surprise yourself with the results.

6.  When you’re elbow deep in edits, concentrate on cutting extraneous adverbs and adjectives, shortening phrases and clauses, and combining sentences to get the most punch out of each word.  Choose your wording carefully and economically. 

Example:  ‘Fred was about to go to the store to buy some bread one bright and sunny morning, but stopped to play a few games of chess when he came to the park.’ can be chopped to this without losing anything:  ‘Off to the bakery in the morning sunshine, Fred stopped to play chess in the park.’  (That went from 32 words to 16)

7.  After you’ve cut the wordage in half,  go back and read the original version, then read the new improved one you just finished.  Amazing, huh?

My novella improved greatly after I made the mini version (just under 10K), because I went back to my original(21K) and edited the full manuscript again by cutting it down 2,000 more words, which is the best version (18.5K), in my opinion.  The contest entry in short story form is great for a short story, but I had to leave out elements which I think really enhance the reader’s experience in the novella form.

NOTE: Remember, this is an exersize in succinctness, not a recommendation to cut every manuscript in half.  Hemingway’s The Old Man and Sea could be whacked down to ‘The old guy caught a fish, finally.’  But how sad would that be, with no introspection, no  baseball analogies, or the struggles and conflicts that make this work stand out? So edit, but don’t go overboard or the sharks might get you.

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9 comments on “An exercise in succinctness

  1. amkuska says:

    I believe Stephen King recommends cutting every manuscript by 10%. I haven’t read his memoir on writing in ages though, so don’t quote me!

  2. Joy says:

    Great post, Tina. I tend to be long-winded, so it’s been an experience to learn how to take a direct route to the meat of my stories.

    • Thanks Joy!
      It’s so hard to figure out what to cut and what to keep. That’s why I think the practice I had cutting that one peice from 21K to under 10k helped me so much. 🙂

  3. This is a great post, Tina. I always try to cut at least 20%, but I also like the idea of making a mini version of your manuscript to get a sense of the bare bones of your plot and the essence of story. I am planning to rewrite a book this year (so I can make a better ending, the first one was disastrous). I’m thinking about using chapter summaries to do it. I’m looking at it like a reverse snowflake method: I’ve already written the beast, but now I’ll extract its essence.

    That came out a lot more weird scientist than I’d planned…

  4. Pam Parker says:

    Thanks Tina – we can always use a good reminder to tighten up. Paring down word count is not only a good exercise, but a great challenge to find the best word, only the best word. Thanks again!

  5. Hey fellow Crusader, Stopping by to say hi and to RSS your blog. This is an interesting idea. It’d be a bit like writing a long synopsis.

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