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Get Ruthless—Cutting Back in Order to Add

May 24, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 24, 2015

Quite often I find inspiration for a blog article from questions asked in the comment sections of other articles and from books or manuscripts I read. Today I’m inspired by a manuscript of my own.

I’ve been working feverishly to finish my own nonfiction book—on self-editing for fiction writers—and this week I found myself at quite the impasse. I worked my way through and around several issues, but one issue had me frustrated. When I reorganized chapters into a stronger and more logical flow, I simply couldn’t figure out what to do with one chapter.

I’d moved other chapters easily—they fit into the new pattern well. I dropped one chapter completely and folded key contents of another into a different chapter to create a more pleasing arrangement, but that one chapter . . .

Yesterday I finally had the epiphany I needed—cut the whole chapter. It simply doesn’t belong.

The chapter focused on beta readers. And while it contained some solid suggestions, it was at best a peripheral issue in a book on self-editing. The thrust of the book is on the editing process itself, not on side issues, not even if they’re mentioned briefly in other sections of the book.

Some side issues, maybe many, don’t belong when they step too far from the main focus and theme of a book.

The same is true in fiction, of course. Digressions can be useful and entertaining, but when they steer readers too far from the main plot or characters, it’s time to rethink their necessity in a story.

If the digression and the focus wander too far from the main points without adding enough in return, without being worth sending readers off in a different direction, reconsider that digression.

If you’ve got a really cool side plot or rabbit trail or digression that nonetheless doesn’t quite fit the rest of the story . . .

If you’ve got a side issue that leaches power from your main story issues . . .

If you’ve got a story thread that only incidentally links to other threads or characters . . .

If you’ve got a story element or a tone noticeably different from everything else in the story . . .

 . . . consider ruthlessly cutting that digression, issue, or element from your manuscript.

If you haven’t figured out a way to fit the side issue in, maybe it’s because you haven’t investigated all the options. But if you’ve tried multiple options and still the digression doesn’t fit, causes problems rather than solves them, perhaps it’s time to cut that digression out and not compromise other story components to make it sort of work.

Sometimes the best choice is not forcing something to work, but getting rid of it altogether. No matter how well written or how captivating on its own, a scene or secondary plot or a flashback may not belong. The best choice may be to cut the problem out rather than try to finesse it in.

If including such an element weakens other scenes or story elements or their impact on the story, then consider cutting the problem issue.

Sometimes we get so attached to one scene or thread that we can’t imagine cutting it. But if it was important to the story that you started and yet it’s not important for the story that you ultimately end up with, that scene or thread can go.

Maybe the scene or text in question once fit. Maybe it never fit and you just like it. Maybe you want it to fit because you’ll eventually be able to use the threads it introduces a couple of books later in a series. Whatever the reason you want to keep something that doesn’t fit, consider your rationalizations. If you have to weaken the story as a whole, if forcing something that doesn’t work into other elements that work without it then compromises those elements, that’s not a wise course to take.

I’m guessing that we often understand why some new idea doesn’t fit with what we’ve already got; such additions are fairly easy to cut out. But if our writing project included a particular element—scene, event, topic—present from the start, we may not see its ill-fit as easily. We may assume that since it was there right at the beginning, it obviously belongs. Yet not everything does belong, even if we thought it once did. Even if it actually once did.

Stories and writing projects change with time. They develop. They often take on a shape and a feel we could have never imagined for them back in the early days of the project.

What I suggest for such cases is that you understand that it’s okay to cut even an element that’s been with a story from the beginning. If your story or writing project took off in a direction different from your original intention, some of those early elements won’t fit and don’t belong.

Yes, they’re familiar. Yes, they may seem organic to a story since they’ve been there all along. But if they don’t belong in the story or book that ultimately develops, they simply don’t belong and should be cut. If cutting a scene or plot thread or character enhances the story, shouldn’t it be cut? If the title you gave a book in the early days doesn’t fit the story that ultimately emerges, shouldn’t it be changed?

No matter how fascinating the character, if a secondary character—or even the protagonist or antagonist—doesn’t work for the story that arises out of your early drafts, shouldn’t that character be forced out?

Sometimes you’ve got to be ruthless, cutting not only what you recognize as an element that doesn’t work, but cutting what you’d once imagined was integral to the story. Don’t assume that just because a character, plot thread, description, or setting detail was there on day one that it still fits. Examine every component of your story or writing project, even core issues that seem to need no scrutiny. Consider not only trying to “fix” an issue; consider cutting it out completely.

I don’t know why I hadn’t considered cutting this particular chapter earlier. I guess I simply assumed it still fit. After all, I’d put it in way back when after deliberation and evaluation; I hadn’t thrown it into the mix willy-nilly. It had once fit. I wasn’t mistaken about that.

But that was several years ago. And I obviously hadn’t considered its fit for the product I eventually ended up with. Just because it had once worked and I’d once made sure it did work, that doesn’t mean it still fit once many other changes had been made. The chapter isn’t a bad one, but it isn’t right for the book that has finally coalesced.

I can use the chapter as a blog article—look for one about beta readers in the coming days. But I can also be confident that cutting it from the manuscript about self-editing was the right choice. And I can use this experience as a lesson to myself—

Remember that chapter that you tried to force into the book? Don’t do that again. If something no longer fits, try recognizing that fact sooner rather than wasting days trying to force it in where there’s no room for it, where it doesn’t match other components of the project.

Recognize that all items need reevaluating as a project moves forward because while some once fit or looked good at the start or at a particular stage, not all will work for the book that ultimately emerges out of the myriad possibilities.

It’s likely that you know this truth in a general sense; I do as well. And while I had no trouble cutting a different chapter a few days earlier, it simply didn’t occur to me that this other chapter no longer belonged. I’d evaluated its use once or twice before, so I didn’t think to evaluate it again. But once I tried to arrange it into its proper place, I discovered it had no place. And then when I decided to cut it completely, I easily saw that cutting it didn’t interrupt anything else in the manuscript. There was not one little ripple generated by removing the chapter. The chapter hadn’t been an integral part of the book after all. It had been a piece wholly unrelated to what the book had become, an extra puzzle piece that couldn’t be forced into a puzzle that was complete without it.

If you’ve got story elements, perhaps elements that you’d included way back in the beginning, that don’t seem to work any longer, consider ruthlessly cutting them without a second thought. It’s likely that you’ll discover as a I did that they simply no longer have a place in your project.

Do consider fixing elements that don’t work—sometimes that’s what you need to do; I’m certainly not suggesting that some story elements don’t need attention and reworking. But don’t forget that excising an element is also an option. And it might well be the best one under the circumstances.



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14 Responses to “Get Ruthless—Cutting Back in Order to Add”

  1. Thanks for the advice. A few months ago I encountered the very obstacle you described. The subject of my dilemma was Ace, a hunting dog belonging to the main character. Feeling that a degree of background on the dog was needed, I injected a few paragraphs by way of a flashback. Since Ace would appear as a key element in a subsequent chapter, I felt the background was justified. Despite my best effort with creative juggling, the flashback soon felt more like a bone-jarring speed bump than an enhancement to the project. In the end, after months of tiresome and fruitless juggling, I deleted the flashback. The story and I both seem to have survived the experience.

    • Aaron, there’s nothing like fighting with something like this one time to cure us from wanting to do it again. Still, I don’t know why it takes us so long to see what we would normally easily see. Stubbornness can serve us well, but it can also get in our way.

  2. Catherine says:

    Great timing! Yesterday, I came to the same conclusion. A whole section of my novel has to be completely rewritten, slashed from existence. Experience helps with this. The more I do it, the more I understand that if I want to reread something I was attached to, I can. I keep those snippets separate. The funny things is that when I do, they don’t mean much anymore and I can understand why they had to go.

    • Exactly, Catherine. Once you make that decision, truly decide to cut something, that same section of text that had once seemed so important no longer is. I’m not sure what mind/brain mechanism is responsible for that, but it’s rather fascinating.

  3. maya says:

    Interesting article! I recognise the dilemma well. The novel I’m currently working on is a project I’ve been attacking from several sides over the past four years. It has taken approximately three 360 degree turns. This whole time, I had a strong feeling what I wanted to to be, it’s one ofthose stories that posesses you and no other project can wholly replace it, but brain and feeling didn’t communicate very well. In the end, you are right, that very first scene that materialised is not in the final version. Neither is an entire subplot or two. All the original elements and characters are, but the flow, the themes and internal logic has finally fallen into place and it’s full steam ahead now. I feel like I’ve written separate books on it, just to grasp how to write this one, and that process of searching has yuelded some redundant material. Maybe it’ll come in handy one day?

    • Maya, I’m glad to hear that your story is coming together. While we always try different elements in different combinations and levels as we put a manuscript together, it’s those projects that take a long time that are most different from their beginnings by the time we’re done. But I’m certain that that’s a good thing. That means we’re not wedded to material that no longer works for the story that’s ultimately created.

      As for redundant material, you can always include it as bonus on your author website. Readers love to see what was cut from novels.

      I wish you great success with your career.

  4. looking forward to your book! do you have an expected publishing date?
    thanks for all your advise…i’m still in the early stages so it’s kind of steering me….

    • Carolyn, the early stages are exciting—I hope you have a good time writing your novel and then working through it with rewrites and edits. There’s truly nothing like writing a novel and seeing it come together.


      I hope to have the PDF version of the book available next month. Because of obligations with clients, I hate to put a firm date out there until I’m sure that I’m sure. But the PDF will be first. And then maybe a few months later will come a softcover print book. I’m still of two minds regarding an e-book. They’re notoriously hit or miss for nonfiction—I won’t do an e-book for Kindle or iPad until I know the text looks good onscreen. But PDFs can be read by e-readers, so I may settle for that.

      Rather vague on the timing, I know, but I’d rather be vague now than miss the date a couple of times. But I’ll definitely let everyone know when it’s coming.

      • From my perspective, and I’m old, I’d much rather hold a book in my hands…especially a reference type book…than have to deal with the e-version…including the annoying back light. I’ll buy a copy – hard/paper back – as soon as it’s ready. So you have 1 sale anyway….

        • Thanks, Carolyn. I’m with you on print versions of reference books. I think they’re much more practical, at least at this stage of e-books. But a PDF has some positives too, one being that you can have it open on your computer at the same time you’re working with your text.

  5. Beth,

    I have been avidly reading your site ever since I discovered it a couple of days ago. You’ve answered many questions about mechanics and strategy that have been bothering me for a long time, cogently, simply, effectively.

    I would hope you post your chapter on beta readers on your blog if you don’t include it in your book. I’m sure it would be useful.

    Looking forward to your book.


    • Tom, thank you for letting me know you’ve found the site useful. That’s always good to hear. And I’m glad you’ve found answers to questions.

      I’ll get that article on beta readers up soon, although three other articles are demanding time as well. But both articles and my own book have taken a temporary back seat to a couple of edits on deadline.

  6. elizabeth says:

    Thank you for your article. Can anyone tell me how often an editor gives feedback to the writer? Say, I want to send about 3,000 words (light editing) how soon should I expect the work to be done (assuming I keep up the pace of 3,000.00 words and send chapter by chapter…what should I expect?).

    Thank you for your time and courtesy reading my e-mail. I also wanted to know whether we can trust the internet to hire an editor.

  7. Phil Huston says:

    An editor, trying not to hurt my feelings, said about a chapter, “This is six lines somewhere in the previous chapter.” Further insinuation was I wrote it to hang out with my characters. She was correct. Comment was made the other day about stripping every unnecessary word. Even words a lot of us deem necessary. I tried it and if it’s still a scene, an element, it’s viable. And like the editor mentioned, sometimes all that’s left is what you needed before or after or not at all.
    Self editing is the creative equivalent of counting calories. Bear down on the protein and ease up on the potato salad and that’s a lot easier said than done.

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