A while back, I completed my fourth Fiona Griffiths novel. The publisher – those nice folks at Orion – liked the book and it was published. So far, so good.
Still, both my editor and I felt the book just felt a bit long. There was nothing redundant or superfluous in it, just the whole book needed to be a little shorter. It was a ship dragging a sea-anchor. Nothing needed to be rebuilt. We just had to reduce the drag.
This post is about how to edit a first draft novel, but based on an actual example of an author (me) going through that process, using my manuscript by way of example.
The book was 136,500 words when I delivered it, but I have just finished a process of cutting and re-editing that has taken it down to 131,000 words. Since my changes included about 750 words of additional text, that means I’ve trimmed a total of somewhat more than 6,000 words, or about 5% of the novel.
(Are you thinking that’s quite long for a thriller? Well, yes, it is. You can get a guide to average novel word counts here, but suffice to say, my work does tend to live at the long end of average. I’d save a lot of work if I learned how to write shorter books!)
This post will share how I did that. What kind of cuts I made, the other adjustments that ensued, the thought processes involved.
Before we get into the detail (and these things are all about detail), three things. This was my ninth published novel, and my thirteenth or fourteenth book. A first draft by a new writer is often able to lose 10% quite easily. It’s not uncommon for 20-30% to be a more accurate target.
New Writers Rule #1 Be ambitious when it comes to cutting material. You’re not aiming to lose content, necessarily – just verbiage. A 12 word sentence could become just a 9 word sentence? That’s the same as cutting 30,000 words from a 120K word novel!
Second, the draft I first delivered to my publisher had already been edited hard. Not just for length, but for flow, atmosphere, plot logic, characterisation, dialogue, beauty, everything. Although the emphasis in this post is on how to cut a novel, this post is just about one small slice of the whole process.
New Writers Rule #2 When it comes to the self-editing process, everything is up for grabs. Everything. Plot, characters, pacing, twists, settings. Everything. There’s nothing sacred. Every little element has to contribute – or get changed.
Third, it’s worth bearing in mind the narrator in what follows is my little Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths, who has, according to one reviewer, ‘some of the most memorably staccato narration in the genre’. In other words, she likes short sentences, clipping verbs or pronouns where it would be more normal to retain them. That’s her voice. You do not have to follow suit. In other words, the decisions I make need to be taken in that Griffithsian context.
Your decisions will be made in the context of your voice, your characters, your market, your story.
New Writers Rule #3 Don’t follow my rules. Make your own!
Enough preamble. Let’s look at some cuts. Again, the examples are taken from my actual edits of my actual manuscript . . .
Example Edit: Description of scramble to base of cliff
Here big chunks are dropping out. Some of it is simply about removing surplus. (We didn’t need the names of six different colours of rock or lichen, for example. We didn’t need to know exactly how far Fiona had soaked herself.) But notice how the scene becomes better as a result. All the pieces were there before, but the assembly was a bit slipshod. This tighter format makes the atmospherics work better, even though there’s actually less atmospheric language.
But some of the cuts also had to do with a willingness to trust the reader. So, in the first version, my narrator has said, in effect, “Look, I’ve seen the crime scene photos and I know I’m in the right spot.” The second version just drops all that. Most readers won’t even wonder how Fiona knows where to stand. Those that do can probably be trusted to think, “Oh, I guess there’d be file photos, something like that.”
And notice the tiny changes. “Just about practical” becomes “manageable”. That’s a saving of just two words, but I’d say that a full third of my cuts were probably made up of such tiny things. Here are a couple more examples of tiny cuts. There were hundreds, even thousands of such things through the new draft:
Here, the sense of ‘can’t see anything’ is adequately reflected in Fiona’s question, so the sentence can go. Three words saved. Yummy.
And, before we move on, just one more example of tiny:
One word saved. Hooray.
Overall, it was rare that I came across passages (like the first passage above) that I could really hack into. Much more common was a host of small or tiny changes that cumulated to something bigger. In total, Microsoft Word reckons I made 3400 changes between the first draft and the second. Now, you can maybe quibble about the way it counts, but the point is still good. You can cut a lot of words by making a lot of small changes. It’s hard work, but you’re a writer. And work is fun.
Example Edit: Description of crime photo
Now peek at this:
The very first passage was taken, not from an action scene exactly, but one with real vibrancy all the same: a quest to see if an accidental death might really be a suicide. The chunk above, however, comes from one of those scenes that all novels have aplenty. Ones that are necessary to the story, but which don’t have real dramatic frisson. So the cuts above were aimed at simply reducing word count. Not too far, of course: we still need to ‘meet’ Emmett and to feel the atmosphere of that meeting. If I’d cut too far, the text could have felt economical but bland. But still. We didn’t need that sentence starting, ‘I’d have preferred …’.
And yes, that sentence does do something to characterise Fiona Griffiths, but her character is all over this novel, anyway. So keeping a sentence like that in a scene that wants to be shorter made no sense. Out it went.
Example Edit: prison description
The same kind of logic applied here:
The deleted material is perfectly fine, but it characterises a location that isn’t used in the scene. Fiona encounters her ex-convict friend in the car park, not the waiting room, so I left in the bit that talks about the car park, cutting the rest. Truth is, I think I was writing myself into the prison scene with that stuff about the waiting area. You’re welcome to write yourself into the scene – just remember to delete fluff. And even that bit in the car park is a wee bit tightened.
Example Edit: Getting the rhythms right
You also need to realise that you’re seldom just cutting, even if cutting word count is your only mission. Here’s a small example of what I mean. (But again: this is all about detail.)
Now all I’ve done there is delete the six words about sailing boats. (Not worth doing? But six words is 0.1% of my total reduction target! That’s massively worth it.) But you’ll notice that the bit about the Bay now jumps to the previous paragraph. No actual words have changed but, even for the staccato Ms Griffiths, that “Views …” sentence didn’t have the muscle to comprise a paragraph all on its own, so I cut the para break and the text flows better. You have to be alert to those rhythmical things all the time. Here’s another example:
That first deletion (‘all’) is simply a tidying up thing. It makes the sentence shorter, yes, but it also makes it better. I’d have made the change, even if I weren’t on a hunt for word count. But notice the next bit. I deleted the sentence ‘Like the efficient …’ because I wanted to compress this (not-very-high-octane) scene, but then having done so, the repetition of the word ‘finish’ would have been too much. So the first instance goes. And the rhythm now works again: the staccato four word sentence (‘neat, swift, etc.’), followed by one that sets up the reaction shot – and a teeny bit of tension as to how Jackson will respond.
Example Edit: Increasing Sentence Force
And as you cut text, you’ll find you get sensitised to other little points of detail. Ones like this, for example:
You’ll notice that that’s three words cut, but three words added. There’s no alteration in meaning, nor have I even fiddled about with the sentence’s key flavour-giving words (ie: best-known, king, obscure). So why make the change? The answer is that the starts and ends of sentences have more power than the middles. A sentence that ends ‘ … not the most obscure either’ is just a little less forceful than one that says ‘… nor is he the most obscure.’ I changed the sentence so that the weight could lie in the final word, not the penultimate one.
Example Edit: Getting your scene / chapter endings tight
A similar kind of point lies behind this cut:
This is the end of a chapter. The first version still leaves Fiona’s question nicely mysterious – but the last four, very short, paragraphs don’t really add any more spice than simply ending the chapter at ‘And look, there’s something else.’
Ending early and arriving late is a very good rule to remember when checking your chapter constructions. Are you getting in as close as possible to the dramatic action? Are you leaving as soon as possible thereafter? And do note that ‘dramatic action’ means anything at all which increases the story pressure in the mind of the reader. Fiona’s final question blips that pressure up a notch (what is she asking, what does she want?), so the best place to finish the scene is right there, with the reader mid-blip.
Since this is a long post already, that’s probably the place to leave it. But don’t feel you have to struggle alone with your novel. We have excellent editors ready to help you identify and fix the issues in your novel. If you want help understanding the various types of editorial service available, you can find a complete (and opinionated) guide here.
And as you get close to the moment of actually Getting Your Manuscript Out There, you probably want to read our guide on how to get a literary agent and our complete literary agent FAQs page here.
If you want more help – we have it! We run a comprehensive self-editing course, one of the very best things we do. Did you know that one sixth of all students who have taken that course have gone on to get published? That’s an awesome stat, made more awesome by the fact that entry to the course is totally non-selective.
And of course, members of Jericho Writers get tons of help and community and access to publishing professionals. We built our club to help writers exactly like you, and we’d really love it if you came and joined us. You can find out all you need to know here. We look forward to welcoming you soon.