Cutting while keeping your voice? Tips and trials

long line of duplicated bollards; need cutting?I’m currently finishing a first draft. And it’s too long. Much too long. It needs lots of cutting.

And therein lies a dilemma.

My first draft is definitely my voice, with all its good and bad points. One of my bad points is repetition. Duplication. Saying the same thing over and over again, but in different words.

ball and chain labelled sin; the sin needs cuttingDid you notice what I did there?
Yes, bad point number one to the fore.
Also in the first para of this post (sigh).

Problem is that, if ⁄ when I start cutting out the sin of duplication, I also risk changing the authorial voice so that it isn’t mine any more.

Oh dear.

Cutting habit words?

I can, of course, make cuts by removing my habit words and phrases.
Of which of course is one. I blogged about that a while ago. old habits to newBut, to be honest, removing habit words doesn’t reduce the overall word count by much. And I need to cut thousands of the blighters. So something more drastic is required.

Murder your darlings?

“Murder your darlings” do I hear you cry?

hand gunSophie blogged about that, too.
As did I, in what Sophie called “a contract killing” rather than “wilful murder”. (They made me do it, guv.)

But which of my darlings are to be sacrificed? Sophie was in favour of selective darling-culling. So am I.
In principle.
But my problem is doing the actual selection for the cull. For some of them are definitely my darling darlings.

Jean Ferrat in 1980 copyright Erling Mandelmann

Jean Ferrat in 1980, by photo©, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Take, for example, the reference to a chanson by the French singer, Jean Ferrat. (My too-long story is set, mostly, in Paris.) The song is called “Raconte-moi la mer” and it has haunted me since I lived in southern France, decades ago. You can listen to it here. Hasn’t he got a fabulous voice? And you can read the words, too, helpfully provided by another Ferrat admirer.

Anyway, one of the characters in my story is a fan of Jean Ferrat and refers to the song. Does it matter for the plot? Not really. Does it matter for the character’s development? Well, maybe. Could it be cut? Yes.

Will it be cut?
Not if I can help it. Self-indulgent, moi? 😉

But in the end, it may have to go if the word count wins…

Self-disciplined cuttingCartoon brain lifting dumbbells

This, in my opinion, is definitely The Last Resort (after I’ve done the Habit Words and so on).  But it can be made to work. I did it for previous too-long first drafts and the results were OK. Pretty much.

This is what I do (but only when I have no other option):

  1. I compare the finished word count of my draft with the desired word count. Let’s say, to make the sums easy, that my draft is 100,000 words and it needs to be 90,000. So I need to lose 10,000 words. Horrors!
  2. I print off the long draft.  My 100K draft comes out at about 330 pages, in double spacing.
  3. perfectionist scissors the lawnI divide my 10,000 word-cutting target by the number of printed pages. So:
    10,000 ÷ 330 = 30 (rounded). I need to cut an average of 30 words per page.
  4. I start cutting. But there’s a secret to it. I start at the end of the printed draft and then I work backwards, page by page.
  5. Even though I have a target, I don’t usually count the number of words I cut on a page. My rule of thumb is to cut lines. To get my 30 words, I need to be cutting about 2 lines per page. Sounds simple, eh?

Comments and variations : choose your own poison

What I’ve described above is what I do. You can do it differently. Horses for courses.

I print my draft because I find it much easier to cut using a printed copy. If you can do your cutting on-screen, you’ll save quite a lot of trees, so do go ahead. Much better than copying me.

letters spelling out END

The END of a first draft isn’t The End. Cutting to come.

Why start at the end of the draft?

Because, that way, I’m not going to get immersed in the development of the story. I find that helps me to stay objective and to pinpoint unnecessary wordage that I can easily cut. By “unnecessary” I mean sentences, or phrases, that don’t advance the plot, or don’t develop characters. (Or pesky repetitions.)

Cutting lines rather than words?

roses tinted weird colours wrong

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Looking for lines to cut makes it more likely that I’ll find a whole paragraph to delete. I’m particularly keen on doing that. I find it’s better than cutting odd words here and there, because those odd words and phrases are often part of my voice, giving it colour and rhythm. If I cut 30 individual words on a page, the result might be bland-text, not my voice any more.

If I can cut whole paras, the draft will be shorter but it’s much less likely that I’ll be doing damage to my authorial voice.

What’s more, if I can cut a longish paragraph, ie more than 2 lines, it’s a real bonus. I then have cuts in the bank, so to speak, because I’ll have cut more than 30 words from that page. And so far, this approach has always worked for me.

In the end, I’m usually well ahead of my target before I get near the start of the book. Just as well. There’s often less to cut at the beginning, because I’ve already edited it to death. (I tend to kid myself that I’m working while editing and re-editing stuff I’ve already written. In actual fact, I’m running away from getting down to writing the next scene. I have a PhD in procrastination.)

Is cutting scary?

Two little kids reading book under blanket

The above may sound scary to you. It may also sound like a terrible wound to inflict on your precious text. But we all know that publishers have their rules and we, the authors, have to abide by them. If a publisher wants a book to fit into a particular printed length, we don’t have much option, do we?

Unless you’ve got a better solution for making drastic cuts? If so, do share.


8 thoughts on “Cutting while keeping your voice? Tips and trials

  1. Sophie

    I think that’s a brilliant solution. Shall apply it to the drafts (yes, there’s more than one) I was going to finalise this year. Maybe I still can, with this technique. Thank you!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Best of luck, Sophie. Believe me, it hurts to do it, but you may feel better after doing it. Then again… 😉

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, katysmum. If I can do both of those things, for at least one person, I think I’m possibly getting something right. As for seeing into your MS… Well, I think many, maybe most, writers have much the same problems with their precious pearls. We hate to see them go.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Moi, aussi. Et surtout, “Raconte-moi la mer”. Inoubliable. A mon avis, bien sur. (Je m’excuse. Il n’y a pas d’accents ici.)

  2. Alison Morton

    That’s an excellent method, Joanna. I shall most certainly pinch it for the first read through of my current WiP which I’m about to finish.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Good luck with that, Alison. I managed to delete about 3,500 words out of 74K which wasn’t too bad.

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