Taking the Pruning Shears to Your Manuscript to Lose the Verbiage*
Sometimes, in the process of revising, you realize your manuscript is just too darn long. That’s when you have to get creative about trimming it. Really creative. Think topiary. No, seriously.
Revision is the writing counterpart of the horticultural practice of trimming (and training) perennial shrubs into clever shapes and configurations.
Hey, it could be worse—I could have said Bonsai. Then we’d really be in the literary equivalent of a heap of compost!
Learn From My (Many) Mistakes
When I finished the first draft of Glimpse of Emerald (which I began writing in high school), it weighed in at a forest-decimating thousand manuscript pages—yes, a one followed by an alarming little trio of zeros. Making matters worse, it was an eye-blearing 318,572 words!
The astonishing thing is several hardy souls actually read it at that horse-choking length.
In his celebrated (and cleverly titled) memoir about writing, On Writing, Stephen King advises a second draft should equal a first draft, less 10 percent. Using King’s mathematical formula, I should have aimed for 900 pages—and 286,715 words—on first revision. At that rate, it would have taken 11 revisions to get my manuscript down to something approaching manageable dimensions!
However in love I was with the story I’d crafted (and its cadre of characters), deep down I knew if I wanted it published, I needed to do some serious revision. Ruthless stuff. I mean large-scale hacking! Time to pull out—no, not the pruning shears. I’m afraid this culling job called for ALR: the Armament of Last Resort. I needed the mighty scythe! I unearthed it from the far corner of my dank and spidery toolshed.
If It Doesn’t Enhance or Advance, Lose It!
I cut scenes that didn’t enhance or advance the story:
• My protagonist’s extensive rehashing and kvetching over multiple losses in his life
• Tertiary storylines
• Copious (and repetitive) internal monologue
• Protagonist’s kid brother getting into trouble at school
• His timid love interest’s misadventures with school bullies
I sheared out subplots that detracted from the main action. Plenty of ’em. I cut some of the funniest stuff I’d written for Gary (my protagonist, who was rather a cutup in his reckless and snarky youth). I got truly ruthless and slashed everything I felt was even remotely extraneous. I won’t lie to you—it was excruciating! I’d spent years developing these characters and hashing out their lives and backstories. I didn’t want to oust any of them. But I did. Some I clipped back neatly; others I excised wholesale. Chop. Gone. Cast onto the growing heap of discarded words beside my desk.
Whew! Finished With Round One
Once I’d trimmed my manuscript to under 750 pages (still bulky enough to give Leo Tolstoy a run for his rubles), I assessed where to further tighten the storyline. I rooted out POV shifts and eliminated most of them, keeping the story largely in Gary’s perspective.
Then I dug out my trusty lopper and circled back to the prologue and chopped out more Gary stuff the reader could live without:
• Minor day-to-day interactions with his program director
• Verbal dustups with his irascible, cigar-chomping sales manager
• Unnecessary misunderstandings with his beloved, Michaela
On to Round Three
When I was finished with that bout of cutting, I returned my loppers to the shed and reached for my pruning shears. It was almost time for the more delicate work. But don’t think there wasn’t other ruthless cropping to be done once I reached that stage. Oh, there was plenty! By then, I was down to about 500 pages … but I still had far more to cut to arrive at a reasonable page count.
As it turned out, many chapters (and the prologue) ended with just a few lines on a page. By clipping a bit of dialogue here and some flowery descriptions there, I could feasibly trim a page from each chapter. Easy peasy. But that’d only get me so far—37 pages, to be precise. Besides, I couldn’t count on doing that with every chapter; so I had to get even more serious about culling my story.
I searched for cuttable words everywhere, starting with extraneous attributions (e.g., she said, he asked, she wondered aloud, etc.) to add to my growing verbal compost heap. Next I looked for surplus dialogue—you’d be surprised how a few words can make a big difference. And I often had characters reiterating things (which grew banal and sigh inducing after a while). So out went all the repetition.
Oh, and you do realize every time someone speaks, it begins a new paragraph, right? Fewer conversations meant fewer new lines of text. Boom!
Don’t Just Take the Easy Road
Lest you attempt to use this tactic for your own revision process, I should warn you about something … or, as my niece would say, “Let me explain you a thing.” There’s far more to effective revision than simply trimming page and word counts. When revising, you want to ensure your story remains cohesive after you’ve deleted passages, paragraphs, pages, or chapters. And if you’ve ousted a character in chapter six, ensure he doesn’t unexpectedly pop up in chapter 22! For consistency’s sake, be sure he stays gone. And if he’s got one crucial scene in the entire book, decide whether you can re-allocate that scene to another character.
Beyond that, be vigilant for peripheral wording in your work. If a scene doesn’t advance the story, consider cutting it. However, if it gives readers key insight into something they’ll need later on, rethink getting rid of it. You’ve got to be judicious; you don’t want to end up cutting out something small but crucial to the story just for the sake of reducing your word count to some arbitrary number you once read big publishing houses expect from first-time authors.
One Final Thought
*As an aside (because I love word trivia), here’s a tidbit about “verbiage.” People frequently misuse it in the context of using it to mean any wording. What it really refers to, however, is excess or unnecessary words. So what we’ve been discussing here today is cutting verbiage. Not “superfluous verbiage,” because that’d be redundant (and, in a word, “verbiage”).
Now you know. So the next time you hear someone talking about “excess verbiage,” you can take that person aside and tactfully say, “Here, let me explain you a thing …”
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.