How To Tell Your Story: When To Cut, When To Keep

When you’re rewriting a book, here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over how to tell your story and are trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

how to tell your story
When you’re rewriting a book, you’re going to have cut material you’re attached to. It’ll be okay, though! Your project will be stronger without the filler.

How To Tell Your Story: You Can Cut Something If…

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So when you’re rewriting a book, make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

How to Tell Your Story: Trim the Fat

This is a very reductive view of writing revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens when you rewrite a book and all of the unnecessary fat is gone?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! This is how to tell your story (more about how to rewrite a novel here). Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop on your way to figuring out how to tell your story.

Rewriting a book? Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you trim the fat and focus on the elements that drive your plot forward.

11 Replies to “How To Tell Your Story: When To Cut, When To Keep”

  1. Nice reminders, Mary. Another trick I employ is reading the section out loud. If *I* think it sounds too long or boring, my readers definitely will. Chop, chop! I loved it this week when I trimmed an entire page from what I thought was already a slim — but not, I hope slight! — chapter.

  2. It’s like you’re reading right over my shoulder. I’m in the midst of the hardest revisions ever and this post is speaking right to me. And like Debbie, I also read out loud.
    Great post!

  3. Debbie — I third reading it aloud… you catch some very gnarly voice things that way.

    Shaun — Glad I could help. Looks like I have a new motto now: Kidlit.com — Projecting Into Your Revision Hell Since 2009.

  4. Oh, this is great, especially #2. I’ve been laughing at my crit partners recent advice: if you love it, Laura, then cut it!

    You both are very wise, and my finger is poised over the delete button!!

  5. Great advice. I’ve found myself using some of it without even realizing it in the past.

  6. I recently chop-chopped 13000 words. Eep. But I am now replacing them with better words, words that are (I hope) actually telling the story I’m trying to tell.

  7. Wish I had read this three weeks ago… before submitting to the kidlit.com contest. I chopped 6k words off my manuscript following exactly these rules, and chapter 1 is 10x stronger. Thanks to the lit agent who told me to kill my darlings!

  8. It is good advice but it can be sooo hard. I liken it to a good haircut. You spent months growing those inches but in reality all they do is drag the hair down. A shorter cut frames your face much better.

  9. Great advice, Mary. And I must admit, since I contemplating revisions right now, #2 stings. >.< I’ll have to post that one with the line ‘showing off’ above my desk as a reminder.

  10. An excellent list to cut and paste, print off and stick on the wall in front of every writer. I’ll be doing it! Thanks, Mary.

  11. Holly Meyer says:

    Thanks for this fantastic advice and blog, which I discovered only a few days ago! I’ve been digging up and dusting off a couple of stories I hadn’t seen in a while, and decided to give them a little look-see. This particular article certainly held some great advice on when to cut something out of my manuscript. Thanks a lot!

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