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Reductive Revision

There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.

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  1. Doeray’s avatar

    I know what you mean. It’s no fun killing your work, but I think I may take it to extremes. I cut out so much that the story no longer makes sense then have to rewrite it!

  2. Mary’s avatar

    Well you always want to maintain the story. For me and for some of the writers whose mss. I read, I find that their cuttable stuff is the padding on the story… description, dialog tags. Stay tuned. I’ll be doing more revision posts. And, for writers like you, I’ll even put a post about adding during a revision in the pipeline.

  3. sally apokedak’s avatar

    Hey, great blog. OK I’ll play.

    Edna looked at Chris, her heart beating quickly. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.

    “Me too, but we have to find that book.”

    They were still scanning the shelves when, with a creak, the office door flew open.

  4. Mary’s avatar

    Nice revision, Sally. Thanks for playing! I think that a lot of writers overuse the heart/eye/spine/hands choreography sometimes, but it never hurts to leave some of that in there.

  5. Ron’s avatar

    Do doors fly open with a creak?

  6. Tess Sharpe’s avatar

    Awesome post! Thank you for this. I’ve got 15K of dead weight to cut off my MS of DOOM!

  7. Kayla Olson’s avatar

    So, I know this post is from a while ago, but I thought it would be fun (and good practice) to participate. :) Got it down to 49 words, too!

    Edna looked Chris in the eye. Her pulse quickened—any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden shelves. “I’m scared,” she whispered.
    “Yeah. Me too.” He scanned a row of tattered books. “It’s gotta be here somewhere…”
    Just then, the office door flew open.

  8. Anne’s avatar

    35 words.

    Edna looked at Chris.
    ‘I’m scared.’
    ‘Me too,’ he said.
    ‘If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian’s going to catch us.’
    ‘Where could it be?’
    Dunno,’ Edna shrugged.
    Behind her, the office door opened.

  9. jbeemills’s avatar

    oh, fun! my version:

    Edna looked at Chris, her heart beating against her ribs. Any minute, the librarian might appear.
    “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening.
    “Me too.”
    They scanned the shelves. “Where could it be?”
    Edna shrugged. “Don’t know.”
    With a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

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