Let’s Talk About Writing – Cutting Your Manuscript Down to Size

Today we’re going to be talking about one of the most dreaded words to a writer: “Cut.” The word that makes us quake and hug our manuscripts tightly to our chests. “No, please, anything but the cut!” we cry. No matter how much we hate the word “cut,” though, I think we all realize that sometimes there’s just no way around it. Some things just have to be cut.

Before we get into this dreaded topic, I wanted to remind you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.

Believe it or not, even if you’re an underwriter, you’re not immune to cuts. It isn’t something that only plagues the overwriters of the world. Even the most bare-bones underwriters can insert a fluffy scene that adds nothing to the overall plot, and that’s exactly the type of thing that needs to be amputated from your otherwise beautiful manuscript. It hurts. It sucks. But trust me, it’s actually not as bad as we make it out to be. Us writers tend to have an air for the dramatic. The truth is, if you cut something from your novel, by the next time you pick up your manuscript you’ll have forgotten it was even there in the first place.

So how do you know what needs to be cut? Well, if you have an agent or editor, a lot of the time they’ll tell you what scenes they think are extraneous and need to be given the boot. You don’t have to wait for an agent or editor, though. In fact, you can increase your chances of being picked up by one or the other by taking a surgical eye to your own manuscript and cleaning it up before it even reaches them. It’s definitely more difficult than being told by someone else what needs to go–because odds are, to you, everything seems important–but with a little practice you can definitely pick out a few scenes that really don’t need to be taking up space in your novel. So I’ve got a few tips for you when it comes to cutting scenes from your own manuscript.

1.) Is there a lot of pointless dialogue that goes nowhere? Cut it.

I’m serious. Even it holds some of the funniest lines you’ve ever written, it’s got to go. Your readers aren’t going to want to sit through a shit ton of banter that ends with no real conclusion or purpose. In fact, it may frustrate them enough to shut the book and never pick it back up again, and, like I always say, that’s not what you want.

2.) Is there a scene where there’s one or two important issues surrounded by fluff? Cut the scene and add the issues into a different, fuller scene.

By this I don’t mean over-saturate an already full scene with even more information. But if you’ve got a nice, rounded scene that has room for one or two more bits of information, squeeze them in there. For example, in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy, my main character needed to learn a bit of information about his new teacher. Originally, I had him learn the information while being fitted for his school uniform, a scene that was mostly fluff with only a little bit of stuff. In one of my later edits, however, I cut the fitting scene entirely and gave the information to his new friends to tell him during a fuller scene that was all about learning about the teacher and the school anyway. It just made more sense, and made the novel flow much smoother.

3.) Is there a scene with information in it that really isn’t all that important? Snip snip.

This is similar to my earlier tip, but instead of moving the information, you cut it altogether. Obviously, make sure this isn’t information that’s pivotal to the plot or any of the subplots. This would be more like information about a certain character that isn’t really consequential in the long run. Maybe you learn that a character’s parents are getting divorced, but that information doesn’t really hold any weight in the grand scheme of things. If that’s the case, it should go.

4.) Is there a scene with too much information? Slice and dice, and sprinkle the information throughout the novel instead.

This is similar to tip number two, in that you’ll be finding scenes with space to add some information, but it’s different because instead of pulling from a mostly-barren scene, you’re pulling from an over-saturated scene. If you’ve info-dumped a ton of your research or your world building into one section, you need to split it up. I’ve actually made an entire post about fixing info dumps, which can be found here.

5.) Is there a plot device that keeps recurring over and over again? Get rid of it.

If we’re on the second or third time in the novel that your main character is having an argument with their significant other about how she wants to be with him but he’s too dangerous for her (I’m lookin’ at you, Twilight), and there’s no real progress being made, you’ve got to cut it. Each scene needs to reveal something new about a character, move the plot forward, or raise the tension. If you have a scene like this, where none of that is happening, why is it even in there? Kick it to the curb, my friend.

And remember, cutting scenes is important if you plan on self-publishing, too. Maybe even more so, because unless you hire a developmental editor, you won’t have anyone telling you which scenes to cut. It’ll be entirely up to you.

I know it may be tempting to just leave your manuscript how it is. To you, it probably seems perfect. Like no scenes are extraneous, like every single one has a reason for existing. This is where I stress that you should put on a hyper-critical eye, and view your novel not as the author, but as a reader. If you were a reader, would you really care about a scene where two characters exchanged small talk and then went on their way with no real reason for the exchange to have happened in the first place? Or would that drive you nuts? Of course, your novel should make you happy, but at some point you also have to think about what will make your readers happy.

Hopefully that gave you a better understanding of what to cut from your manuscript and when, and hopefully you’re able to walk away without too much emotional trauma. Cutting scenes from your novel is rarely fun, but trust me, it is rewarding in the end.