The Cutting Room Floor

I mentioned last week that I’m trying to write more posts for the intermediate or published author… and I’ve decided I’m also going to try and include more posts about craft. You know, the actual process and technique of writing. So today I want to talk about self-editing. Specifically: cutting.

One of the things I’ve noticed in reading manuscripts lately is that my editing often consists of deleting unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs. A common mistake writers make, even experienced writers, is overwriting. Too many words. Over-describing things. Telling us what we already know. Surplus adjectives and adverbs.

An excess of words makes your writing bloated and boring. It robs your reader of opportunities to figure things out for themselves, to make discoveries about your characters and have “aha!” moments about your plot.

Elmore Leonard, in his article, “Easy on the Hooptedoodle,” famously gave this advice: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Of course, easier said than done. But as you’re reading through your work, watch for places in which you get bogged down, or you stumble over a word or phrase, or the descriptions go on too long. Ask yourself whether something should be cut.

If you are particularly enamored of a certain turn of phrase you used… a beautiful sentence, an especially evocative description, a clever metaphor… be aware that these might have to be the first to go! (Some writers refer to this as “killing their babies.” It’s really hard.) Whenever your writing calls attention to itself, whenever a reader would stop and say to themselves, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” your story is at risk. You might be guilty of author intrusion, stopping the reader in their tracks, taking them outside the story so they will notice your writing. Big no-no. So carefully consider all those special babies of yours, and ask yourself whether they move the story forward—or distract from the story.

Award-winning and bestselling author Isabel Allende was asked to pass along the most useful piece of writing advice she’s ever received. She said this:

“When in doubt, cut without mercy. Read everything aloud so you will notice tone, rhythm, repetition, clichés, etc. Write a thousand drafts if necessary.” *

I agree. Cut without mercy.

Q4U: How do you approach self-editing? Where are you in your ability to cut? Tell us of a painful edit that ended up improving your writing.

[*Isabel Allende quote from Writer’s Digest, October 2008, p. 44.]


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Andrew on October 8, 2008 at 1:58 PM

    >I’m lucky in that respect – I have to write technical papers within a 10k word limit, and that includes word-equivalents for graphs, tables, and pictures. It’s hard to describe a three-year research program in those constraints, but there’s no choice.

    In fiction, I try to cut out everything that does not either move the plot, or develop character. No descriptive prose is allowed on the first draft. Then the minimum is added after my Editorial Board (in-laws!) ask questions like…”Uh…what does you main character LOOK like?”

    I haven’t had painful edits. Adding stuff is painful.

  2. Kat Harris on October 8, 2008 at 1:53 PM

    >Speaking of the cutting room floor:

    I found Michael Snyder’s book “My Name is Russell Fink” interesting for the simple reason that readers can find “deleted scenes” in the back of the book.

    Everyone has seen deleted scenes on DVDs, but in a book? Maybe I live with my head in the sand, but I’ve never seen that before. I found in interesting and kind of fun.

    As far as my own ability to cut, I have a separate file open when I’m editing. Particular phrases that I find especially near and dear are “cut” from the manuscript and pasted into the “cut from” file. I might be able to use it or something like it in a future project.

  3. Anne L.B. on October 8, 2008 at 10:55 AM

    >Even painful cuts have improved my writing. But bad haircuts are proof that cutting more isn’t always better.

    In fiction, it seems emphasis is on not only editing the truly superfluous, but also fast pacing and proven formula. I do enjoy “Up All Night Suspense.” I also enjoy the inimitable, well-crafted epic which lasts several days, drawing me into the lives of characters I’ll long remember. Some trips are about the destination. Some are about the journey.


    If there’s still room in 21st century publishing for both the action-packed and the literary, what sets apart the successful literary?

  4. Yvonne on October 8, 2008 at 10:27 AM

    >This last year, I’ve been participating in a weekly contest on FaithWriters. The word count is 750 words. At first, my stories were running around 1,000 words, and I’ve learned how cut out unnecessary “telling” and how to use good verbs and dialogue to give my stories “punch”.

    Recently, I entered a contest for a children’s story. It had to be no more than 150 words. That was a real challenge!

    Having a good vocabulary and thesaurus really helps, plus playing Scrabble. Using strong and precise nouns and verbs can tell more than a whole paragrah.

  5. Matthew C Jones on October 8, 2008 at 10:20 AM

    >When I’m editing, I print out my chapter, grab a pencil, and read through the chapter with the intent of feeling how the story flows. If a word or phrase feels out of place, I cross it out and jot down an idea of what I feel it should say (and hopefully avoid any cliches). Extraneous words get hacked in the process, too. I’ve often heard that phrase, “Kill your darlings,” and, except for the rare occasion, have been able to do that mercilessly in the hope that it will make the story stronger. Of course I keep an original version of the story saved on my hard drive even after I make the changes on my computer. 🙂

    I actually had a particularly favorite direction that my current WIP was headed that I had to toss out (to the tune of about 3 chapters, yikes), but in the rewrite, the story became so much stronger, I just can’t complain. It’s tough to toss out several weeks of work, but it was worth it.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for your continued hard work and for the wealth of information!

    Grace to you,
    Matt J.

  6. Camille Cannon (Eide) on October 8, 2008 at 10:11 AM

    >Like Lynn, I love editing, I get most creative after the basic story is there to work with.

    I also like getting critiqued. It can be hard for me to see overwriting on my own. I tend to overuse adjectives and do a lot of couplets. Like I just did. And I don’t notice my pet phrases or overused character mannerisms as well as others. So self-editing, for me, requires more than my SELF.

    I tend to restate. I say the same things over again. *Ahem*. I told a crit bud that it must come from being a mom and having to repeat myself.

    A few months into my novel, I had to accept the fact that 3 of the first 6 chapters had to go. I didn’t see how it would work without them at first, but once those chapters were gone, it was so CLEARLY the right thing to do.

    Two things that might make cutting easier:

    1. Make a folder and call it “cuts” for hard to part with chapters, paragraphs, and phrases. Then you don’t feel you’re killing your babies, just placing them in another room for a nap. If there are nuggets of important info or description there, you can pull them out.

    2. Remember that you’re clever enough to work those important little nuggets into other chapters. You really are!

    Thanks for the reminder to pare down and that more is not better.

  7. JC Lamont on October 8, 2008 at 10:05 AM

    >Last draft, I cut over 35,000 words. This draft, I’m aiming to cut another 30,000. To ease the pain, I have a file called Deleted Scenes, which I will someday post on my blog (after the book is published) for all my obsessed fans who, like me, can’t get enough of my characters. (I keep telling myself these obsessed fans exist, it makes the whole process much easier).

  8. Lea Ann McCombs on October 8, 2008 at 10:00 AM

    >I agree totally with Lynnrush. Writing the first draft is like playing with Playdough! I just let it flow out in wondrous abandon, watching where the plot leads, who the characters turn out to be, little twists I didn’t see coming. It’s fun.

    Then the next draft starts cleaning it up, adding those pretty phrases that may end up getting cut anyway.

    I have the list Rashelle put on her blog months ago about Tightening Your Writing. I go painfully thorugh the whole manuscript with the Find/Replace key reducing passive verbs, adverbs, “ing” words, etc. It helps to have a checklist like that pinned on your wall to remind you.

    My personal addiciton is exclamation marks! See? I put them anywhere I want them in the first draft, but then I’ve started using Find/Replace to take them ALL out. When I do my next draft, I have to earn each one back and prove its necessity to myself. This method took my initial 756 exclamation marks down to 109 in a 90,000 word manuscript. It works!

  9. Ed J. Horton on October 8, 2008 at 9:43 AM

    >Thanks for the helpful insights on craft. I am gaining confidence as I self-edit, but certainly have a lifetime of learning ahead. I found the Hooptedoodle article full of good, practical tips. The reader’s comments today are very helpful, too.

    Like Timothy mentioned, I seem to have an unfounded fear that my readers won’t “get it” so I over-explain, repeat, and re-state. I’m working on doing that less.

    I find that reading my manuscript aloud to someone else helps me more than if I just read aloud to myself. Because I’m already so familiar with my story, it helps to have a new set of listening ears. The first time I tried this with my wife, I read three “polished” sample chapters aloud. Guess what? We each heard two different problems–one was a serious logic issue that I had not previously identified.

    I’m no longer afraid to rewrite manuscript sections. I used to fear re-writing because I thought I might not write it better and maybe even lose the flavor and meaning of the passage. No more.

  10. lynnrush on October 8, 2008 at 9:40 AM

    >I love editing. I know, I’m a freak. It’s ok to say it. My first drafts are horrendous. I just write and write and write. Repeating words, using the worst grammar—but it’s freeing.

    THEN, the fun begins. Adding the flesh, cutting the excess, doing “find/replace” for all those pesky, useless words.

    I think I love doing that because I get to see something unfold. Like a sculpture. it starts out as a block of soft clay, then, with shavings, some water to soften, etc… turns into something beautiful.

    Same with writing. I welcome critiques, my skin is thick. AND, I know that the end product will be better.

    Teachable spirits, remember?

  11. Stephanie Reed on October 8, 2008 at 9:22 AM

    >I have a tendency to self-edit even after my books are published. So when you think you are finished cutting, *that’s* when you rev up the chainsaw.

  12. Pam Halter on October 8, 2008 at 8:50 AM

    >The best things you can do to catch mistakes, repeated words and clumsy sentences is to read your story out loud. Especially when writing picture books, which are meant to be read out loud.

    When I went through the editing process with my picture books, I didn’t have to cut anything out as much as change wording to agree with the publishing house’s doctrine.

    The hardest part for me was when they changed the color of my main character’s (Beatrice) hair. I cried all day! HA! When my husband asked why it bothered me so much, I thought about it and came up with, well, Beatrice was ME. Changing her hair color took that away. But the editor was right. She is more vibrant with red hair than brown hair and I’m used to it now.

    Now that I’m working on middle grade novels, I’m anticipating what may happen when I get to that phase. I believe I’m teachable and willing, but I hope it doesn’t hurt too much! 🙂

  13. Angie F on October 8, 2008 at 7:28 AM

    >Interesting that Lisa said she keeps a file of “little darlings” that she had to cut but likes to sift back through on occasion. My advice has to do with exactly that thing.

    Feeling bogged up in edits last week, I forced myself to delete every earlier version of my current ms AND my file of “little darlings.” Trust me, it did hurt, but I knew I’d never get the copy as clean as I wanted as long as those guys were waiting for an opportunity to jump back into my story.

    Thanks so much for the post and the reminder to write tightly!

  14. Chatty Kelly on October 8, 2008 at 7:28 AM

    >First draft I just write. Second draft I cut out all the “ands, buts, justs” etc. And most of the adjectives. Finally, I read it OUT LOUD. Then you really find any mistakes or bad wording. Finally, send it to a friend who will honestly edit you.

    My first published article started out at 1,000 words. The editor said “like it, but way too wordy.” The final product was just at 600 words and hits the stands next month! (Proverbs 31 Woman Magazine). I can’t wait!

  15. Lisa Jordan on October 8, 2008 at 6:56 AM

    >The other day I sent a chapter to a writing friend to read. She was excited about it and deemed it perfect. The praise was well-earned because she'd tell me it sucked if that was the case. I went on to write the second scene in that chapter and sent it to her with revisions on the first chapter.

    Her first comment was asking why I revised. She said I was overwriting and the first scene lost the sizzle. So what did I do? Reverted back to the original.

    At the ACFW conference I met with a published author who critted my first chapter and she showed me places where I bogged down the writing and cutting would make the story flow better. I did as she suggested. She was right.

    When I cut scenes and paragraphs that I like, I file them in that particular novel's Bits & Pieces file. Never know where those little darlings may find a place that fits. 🙂

  16. Timothy Fish on October 8, 2008 at 5:41 AM

    >Your first question is easier to answer than the second. Where I am is that I am better than I used to be and not as good as I will be. But other than that?

    In my editing process, I begin with a butcher knife and work down to a scalpel. I recently deleted an entire chapter. The chapter was a beautiful piece of character development. The problem was that it only developed the characters in the B Story and did nothing to advance the plot.

    When it comes to the more detailed edits, I may pay less attention to that than I should. I sometimes want the reader to “get it” and over explain.

  17. Erastes on October 8, 2008 at 4:31 AM

    >i overwrite and i repeat words which is one of my biggest problems. I use a programme that picks out repeated words so I can see where I put a million “that”s and the like.

    I read aloud as I’m editing which I find is invaluable to help cut down the extraneous.

  18. Gwen Stewart on October 8, 2008 at 3:19 AM

    >There’s a glitch in my brain. On my blog I write fluffy and big, a free-write fanciful sort of thing as either an appetizer or dessert to my fiction–not for readers but for me. I either start or finish my writing time with blogging and sometimes there’s too much of something: potato on the skins or chocolate sauce on the ice cream. Hmmm.

    My fiction, however, comes out sparse the first time. I’m not a visual person, which makes describing difficult. I don’t “see” things…I hear or feel them it seems. So I have to go through rough drafts and add.

    That said, it can be hard to find balance between sparse and fluff. I sense a delete key in my future. 🙂 It’s okay, though. Main meals are best when the key ingredients shine, right?

    Thanks for your blog, Rachelle, which is not fluffy but hearty with good information. I’ve learned so much here. God bless you today.

  19. Susan on October 8, 2008 at 1:58 AM

    >I overwrite by miles, adjectives galore, so my rule is to cut in half. I don’t worry about overwriting while writing the first draft because otherwise I’d never finish, so I leave the cutting to the edit.

    The most painful? Last year I entered a short romance competition sponsored by a national radio programmer, and worked for days on a story, trimming it to 3,000 words though the first draft was closer to 5,000. Then I re-read the rules and the word count was really 1,000! Oops! But, I managed to trim it again(heartbroken over all the lost words as usual), then I sent it, and I won a trip to London with it.

    My best editing help is letting a story sit for a few months in the drawer before looking at it again. None of the words or phrases are darlings anymore and cutting’s easier.