As an editor, I am very familiar with the art of pruning text, for many of the same reasons that trees and shrubs are selectively cut: to increase the quality of flowering and fruiting (style, voice, themes), to remove deadwood (unnecessary words, sentences and paragraphs), and to improve the overall structure and shape (story line development, characterisation, narrative momentum).
Different types of pruning require different tools and approaches.
TRIMMING WITH SECATEURS
There is a tendency in writers who are beginning their writing careers to ‘over write’ – to expand or augment an image or idea unnecessarily. I see this again and again in the manuscripts I read, both fiction and non-fiction. This is not a mark of bad writing, it is simply part of the process of getting the story down, particularly the first draft, and often indicative of the writer’s love of words. In each subsequent draft, it is important to have the secateurs handy.
Common traps for the novice writer include using too many adjectives or adverbs, stating the obvious, drawing attention to insignificant detail unnecessarily, and overstating an action, scene or idea by saying the same thing more than once. There may also be issues of weak and unspecific images, extraneous words and repetition. All these things slow the pace of the work, but more importantly they squeeze out the role of the reader in bringing the text to life.
Good writing leaves space for the reader to enter the text and imaginatively engage in the work. With experience writers learn to trust that the reader will ‘get it’ with the minimum of words. Quite simply, less is more. As Carmel Bird says in her book Dear Writer (McPhee Gribble 1988), ‘Your sentence must lead the reader up to the meaning so that the meaning can dawn like light in the reader’s mind.’
CUTTING WITH A PRUNING SAW
Stephen King, in On Writing (Hodder & Stoughton, 2000) reflects on the importance of a piece of advice he received from an editor, early in his career: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’
I concur; I have yet to come across a book-length text of an unpublished author that couldn’t be cut back in some way. One area that is often problematic is the opening. The first paragraphs and pages often reveal the process the writer has gone through to work out where to begin. Editor’s call this ‘throat clearing’. I sometimes see manuscripts where a whole chapter, or even two, could be cut to expedite the opening.
Whether you are writing fiction or narrative non-fiction, you need to be able to distinguish between the information the reader needs to know in order to follow your story thread, and all those other fascinating things you could say about the characters and setting.
Another job for the pruning saw is getting rid of dead ends – those scenes and sections that don’t progress the narrative or present necessary information, or that head in the wrong direction. The biggest culprit is ‘backstory’ (events that happened prior to the main story line). While it is important for writers to be intimately familiar with the history of their characters and settings, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know that level of detail.
CALLING IN THE ARBORIST
In some cases, cutting down the text is paramount if you want to attract a publishing contract. Publishers are unlikely to even look at a manuscript from an unpublished writer that is over 100,000 words. There are occasional exceptions, but they are rare indeed. Most published fiction and narrative non-fiction sits between 60,000 and 80,000 words.
About 30% of the manuscripts that come my way need to be cut by 10–50,000 words in order to get a look in with a publisher. That may sound drastic, but it is always possible. I do appreciate that the writer’s perspective makes it difficult to see how to cut so much material; that’s where the editor comes in.
I did have one writer contact me about his 240,000 word travel memoir – a chain saw job? A trilogy?