Editing is a cruel and unforgiving process. Once you’ve made the arduous journey of turning blank pages into a legible tale, you then must go back through and brutally critique your own work, not just once but multiple times. Seeking out every typo, comma splice, run-on sentence, and unnecessary chunk of text is daunting work.
One of the most painful pieces is cutting scenes, characters, paragraphs, or chapters that are not necessary to the story. You’ve spent all of this time thinking up such lovely words and now you need to blast some of them into oblivion.
There are some hard and fast rules when it comes to cutting. Does this build character? Does it further the plot or sub-plot? Is this an information dump? (That includes backstory, world building, or what you’ve learned from research.) Is this a repetition of information?
Those are all good rules and necessary. Despite that, sometimes it’s hard to let go of a scene. That’s why I have some simple foundation questions I ask myself while editing.
Will the story still make sense without this?
If you can answer “yes” to this question, then it needs to be cut. Not only is this a simple way of critiquing yourself, it also encompasses all of the rules of cutting.
Does the reader really need to know how this magical engine functions? The story will make sense without it.
Do I need to keep this character with only a couple of lines easily given to someone else? The story will make sense without him/her.
This scene where everyone runs through a fountain laughing sure is fun, but nothing important happens. The story makes sense without it.
A highly detailed description of the castle grounds isn’t required for the story to make sense.
As an example of cutting info dumping, in the original manuscript of Darkness Falling, the first chapter was 24 Word document pages. In the current version it’s 4 pages. Cutting is hard but necessary.
Is this something this character would already know?
If you can answer “no” to that question, then it needs to be cut or it needs to be explained.
Would a poor girl working in a shop understand the inner workings of the palace guards? Cut it!
Just because your characters are refugees from Earth living on a space station doesn’t mean all of them understand the science keeping them alive. Cut it!
Does your farm boy know the entire martial history of the kingdom and the line of inheritance? Cut it!
This also applies to mind reading. Unless you’re writing in a fully omniscient style, don’t jump from head to head to explaining thoughts and feelings. Stick with body language and facial expressions.
Cutting takes practice.
Sometimes it’s not easy to admit to yourself that a scene doesn’t belong. If you really love a scene but know it needs to be cut, it doesn’t mean you have to delete it forever. Copy and paste it into another document and keep it for yourself. “Deleted scenes” can be things you share with fans at a later time (or so we all dream.)
Thank you for reading as always. If you have any other tips for cutting up a manuscript, please feel free to share in the comments. The more we know, the better editors we all become.