November 7, 2012

On Word-Cutting


Recently, I went through a pretty major revision. Like, the kind of revision where you add lots of worldbuilding, add some character development--heck, even add a couple entirely new scenes while you're at it. Which was all great and everything, but you know what else all those good additions added? That's right. WORDS. I don't really want to tell you where my wordcount ended up after that revision, but it was ugly, you guys. It was not good. *cough 130k cough*

It just so happened that at the same time, I was doing a closet overhaul. As you may know, until my recent move, my desk was in the closet (see exhibit A, below) and I have to be honest--it was getting hard for me to squeeze in there. So as I was trying to cut my MS down, while also trying to cut my closet down, I had a flash of inspiration. 

Cutting down my wordcount was just like cutting down my closet!

My desk in the closet. Please excuse the mess--this was pre-closet-cutting!
As it turned out, the chopping block looked remarkably similar for both endeavors. 

1. The big stuff. In my closet, there was this section at the back of stuff I hadn't worn in years/had never worn/would never wear again if my life depended on it (old bridesmaid dresses, I'm looking at you). For the most part, I'd been keeping those because they were sentimental, or expensive, or I'd had them forever, or some other bad excuse. 
In my MS, if I looked at it in just the right way, I could find the same thing. There were paragraphs, sections of dialogue--even one entire scene--that were no longer serving their purpose in the story. They'd stuck around because they'd always been there, or because they had a bit of important info, or because there were a few lines I loved so much I'd subconsciously avoided putting the whole section on the chopping block because of it. But, like those old bridesmaid dresses, they had to go. 
I took one last sentimental photo of the dresses and tossed them in the Goodwill bag, and I cut those sections from the MS and pasted them in a cut-scenes document. Ahhh. Feeling lighter already. And it was a good thing I did that first, because who wants to spend time line-editing sentences that should have been cut? Who wants to put those horrid bridesmaid dresses on new hangers? 
Cut the big stuff first. 

2. The medium stuff. Once I'd done as much pruning as I could, it was time to save space another way. In the closet, I took to evaluating each item. Could these five skirts be put on a multi-skirt hanger? Should I put this bulky sweater in a drawer rather than in the closet? (And what was I doing with a sweater on a hanger anyway? They get those weird stretched-out shoulders!) 
In the MS, line-editing was next on the agenda. Any time I found myself describing the character's every move ("I walked to the door, put my hand on the doorknob, and turned."), unless those actions were super important themselves, I chopped them ("I opened the door."). I watched closely for times when I repeated myself in different words ("They were some of the most famous actors in the world. They were on the cover of US Weekly at least twice a month.") and made a point to use only the best, most specific description. (If they're on the cover of US Weekly, do I really need to state that they're famous, or has that detail made the point for me?) I made sure to shorten every sentence I could just a little tiny bit by taking out extraneous words.
And you know what? I was amazed. These weren't the massive, blocks-of-text cuts I'd made in step 1, but I actually saved MORE space this way than I did with the big cuts!

3. The small stuff. Now, all that was left was fine-tuning. In the closet, I already had a good deal more room, but my hubby wanted to be able to put a few more of his things in there, too, (I know, so demanding!) so I brought out the big guns. Skinny hangers. A whole bunch of those pretty, slimline, velvety things, and the closet had shrunk enough for me to sit at my desk without being attacked by clothes.
In the MS, it was time for the nitty-gritty: cutting overused words. The thing with overused words is that they're different for everyone. There are some it's easy to abuse (was, just, that, many adverbs) and there are some that were my own personal demons (like, something, looked, eyes). Just by chopping as many of these as I could, I saved myself a decent number of words and saved my readers from having to read them over and over. 

At the end of my word- and closet-cutting experience, I was delirious with deleting. It turned out the closet and the MS felt lighter, I felt freer without all the extra baggage, and I was ready to go shopping for new clothes/add more scenes and start the process all over again! Hurray! 

What about you? What are your favorite word-cutting techniques? Do you ever find yourself comparing your writing to household chores, or am I just crazy? (Don't answer that last one.)

6 comments:

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

This is a great analogy! I feel so much better when I've thrown stuff away ... and when my manuscript is trimmer, too. :)

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I love this analogy! You've also inspired me to clean out my closet! :D

Maggie Hall said...

Yay! I hope the MS and closet trimming go well. :)

Samantha said...

Great post, Maggie!
Your advice is spot on. It has been daunting to look at my MS as a whole unit, while trying to figure out what to cut and trim, and still have the continuity. I love your analogy and approach.
Thanks for sharing!

Gina said...

Heck no you're not crazy, I once compared revisions to remodeling a bathroom! This is a great analogy - and it's SO satisfying to make a sentence succinct without losing its effectiveness :)

Marieke said...

Oh, I love this! My first MS, a couple of years ago, came in at some 110k. In the first round of revisions I cut it down to 70k. Just getting rid of scenes that served no purpose, dialogue that had no goal, was the most liberating feeling! And of course, getting rid of all those "hads" and "thats" was pretty awesome too ;)

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