SLASHING AND BURNING (IN OTHER WORDS, EDITING) with Bonnie Schroeder

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

SLASHING AND BURNING (IN OTHER WORDS, EDITING)

My current Work in Progress initially weighed in at 121,000 words—waaaay too long unless you’re Marcel Proust or David Foster Wallace.
I am therefore in the midst of that excruciating process known as editing. With the help of my critique group, I’ve carved away over 5,000 words so far without sacrificing storyline or character development. Because I tend to overwrite, some of this was fairly easy. Other parts, not so much.
Here’s an example of an easy fix: “Now how on earth had he remembered that old saying of hers, after all these years?”
Streamlined, it reads, “How had he remembered that old saying of hers?”
Seven words gone, in only one sentence!
I have a lot more darlings to kill, of course, and here are some techniques I’ve found helpful so far:
1.   Eliminate unneeded words and phrases.
In other words, to quote my writing gurus Strunk and White:
“Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little(except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better; we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.”
Here are some egregious examples from my own work:
“It’s basically an open and shut case.”
“The light flickered and blinked.”
“Suddenly, she stood up.”
2.   Don’t have one character tell another something the reader already knows.
For example, if you’ve written a scene where a character is mugged, and she later on tells someone about it, don’t recreate the whole event in dialog. Instead, simply write, “Her voice trembled as she described the mugging.”
3.   Get rid of redundancies, e.g.
“absolute certainty”
“capricious whimsy”
“garish caricature”
“wretched misery”
The above are more embarrassing examples of my very own.
4.   Trim long descriptions. Or, in the words of Elmore Leonard, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Easy to say, and oh so hard to do!
5.   Consider combining two characters, if they both serve the same purpose in the story. I did this with two secondary characters, and the storyline crystallized without the distraction of both people echoing each other’s moves. Another thousand words saved.
6.   A radical suggestion I encountered in another writing blog is to try deleting one paragraph per page, one sentence per paragraph, or even one word per sentence. I was amazed at how well this worked.
You need to take a deep breath and trust your reader, but it can enhance the story in unexpected ways if you allow said reader to fill in the blanks and participate in creating the story.
I obviously still have much to learn about editing, and I’d love to hear about other techniques for managing this phase of the writing process.

 

Now, back to ruthlessly wielding my red pen/scalpel. Only about 10,000 more words to excise!

17 thoughts on “”

  1. I love your suggestions, especially the last one. It's difficult to trim some of those extra words, such as “rather”, from dialogue and narration-first person- when they add (or you think they add) to the character's personality.

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  2. Thanks, Jack. It is always a challenge, and as you point out, sometimes a fine line between character reveals and excess words. I've read your work and you seem to have mastered it.

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  3. Excellent! I use a lot of adverbs and adjectives that have to go! Oddly though, when editing, am usually trying to fill in, add scenes, words, sentences, paragraphs etc that fill in. Usually starting with low word count that needs pumping up. But then–there's still “stuff!” that needs to go. You're so right, Bonnie regarding the expertise and “ruthlessness” required to edit properly. And it ain't easy…

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  4. Hi, Bonnie, it's very humbling what you can lose when you edit. I write short books, novellas and novelettes, nothing much longer. For a Christmas story, I cut 15K words out of a 25K piece. Like I said. Very humbling. Of course, it's now a short story but that's fine as there just happened to be a call for them by my publisher. Great post. Thanks for sharing what I call my “weasel” words. I have a list of them. They just creep into everything, don't they? My best. Paul

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  5. I am finding the editing process gets easier the more books I write. Maybe I am leaning what not to write before I start.

    Your redundancy thoughts should be carved in stone over every writer's computer/typewriter/notebook. Another way to see/hear if your work has those redundancies or unnecessary words is to have your computer or a friend or even yourself read the work aloud. Those redundant words stand out, especially when you, the author, know what's coming next and those extra words get in the way.

    I like your idea about cutting out a word a sentence. I will use that when I write short stories. Cut, cut, cut.

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  6. I like your number six. Somehow, cutting one word from a sentence sounds easier than cutting 15,000 words from the whole manuscript, unless of course your sentence is “Anna nodded.”
    Seriously, I do a lot of editing and these are good tips to follow. The hardest one for me is number four on description. If it is beautiful, well written imagery, I can read a LOT of description. My classic example is Louise Penny.

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  7. Thanks, Paul. I'm impressed that you could cut 15K words out of 25K. Gosh, could I send you my manuscript? Just kidding about that, but as you observe, it is quite humbling to come across those extraneous passages and those sneaky weasel words.

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  8. “Learning what not to write.” Clearly I have not mastered that lesson yet, but it's something I strive for. And yes, reading the work aloud does help weed out the unnecessary stuff. When we met as a group and I read my pages, the clunkers really stood out!

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  9. You do too compose beautiful and well-written imagery in your articles and your reviews–but I've always found it to be “just enough.” And sometimes a lengthy passage of description is necessary and enjoyable. Just not on every page.

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  10. For me it's number one. Can't tell you how many 'just's I've cut from my manuscripts. Another is 'he stood up', as if one might assume he stood in a different direction without the clarification. Excellent suggestions, Bonnie.

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  11. Hah! “He stood up” is a good one to add to my list, Miko. And I'm a “just” overuser too–thank goodness for the “find” function in Word. It went into overtime when I typed “just.”

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  12. I love Strunk and White and now you have added ” Schroeder slashing” to the writer's toolbox. Great suggestions. it is so very hard to kill our darlings though. Practice makes perfect and thanks for the great reminders.

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