How to Cut Words and Let Them Go

Starting young as I had (at eight, with short stories), I thought every single word I wrote mattered. Later, when I started typing instead of writing by hand, if I cut something out of a story, I pasted it in endless ‘side’ documents, ‘companion’ documents, and I always carefully tracked the numbers and the fragments.

Nowadays, I just don’t. I do track the document changes—better said, I use Google Docs, which helpfully do it for me—but I almost never go back to the previous version, or put cut words back into the main copy. And, as a regular NaNoWriMo participant, cutting words and not looking back was one of the hardest things I had to learn.

Here are just a few reasons I think it worked for me—years later.

Keep your eyes firmly on the future. Always. A clean copy now means faster publishing later. (At least that’s what we always hope for, don’t we?) It might hurt, because you’ve spent some time over the words you’ve written, words that now have to go—because they’re in the wrong place, or unnecessary, or connected to a plotline you’ve dropped in the meantime, or just plain bad. In the end, it’s all for the best. Pacing, pacing and more pacing is what keeps the story going, and not all words you’ve written were all that inevitable in the first place, now were they?

Remember they’re just words. That’s all there is to them. They are, despite each language’s scope, most definitely an infinite resource. If they don’t work in a story, for whatever reason, you can always put more of them in later—or even write something altogether differently, I guess, use the words better. Yup. Just a tool—for the storyteller, who’s actually in charge. (That’s you!)

Don’t count plot notes and/or the outline in your main copy wordcount in the first place. (Well, everybody was a brand new writer once. Boo hoo. You actually have to do some additional writing on the side—if for nothing else, then to help yourself to remember half developed ideas and new, partially defined concepts.)

There’s a home for every stray character. If they’re the issue, and they need to be—why does this sound so cruel?—cut. Sometimes, it’s not a character, but a plotline, and the more I write, the easier it gets to delay plots for some other time, not even necessarily in the same setting. (It also means that no, I don’t have space for my personal favourite from Johnny’s Girls in the sequel, but I’ll probably bring them back a bit later, maybe in book… four. I’m nothing if not a big dreamer.) Cramming things into a novel, all of the things, is a potentially big problem, and focusing on the future, as noted above—and actually believing there is a future for your writing—is incredibly helpful for keeping it under control.

Remember that there’s always more where they came from. Another hard lesson, especially in the first few years I’ve tried writing novel-sized prose. As a writer, you’re highly unlikely to run out of ideas—and out of words. Both can happen, but it’s mostly a result of other, outside turmoil, not of the (highly improbable) occasion of you forgetting how to write.

And, finally…

Think as a reader. Do you really need these three pages of introspection? (I don’t, because I can’t write inner monologue for shit.) In cutting the excess words, you’re actually helping your reader consume the story and the characters and the drama better—and your reader will be grateful for it!


Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash.
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