In order to walk down the publishing runway, a manuscript needs to be sleek and trim.
In 1998, upon an editor’s request, I revised one of my manuscripts by eliminating 27,000 words. Using this reduction diet, I made my novel more focused, sharpened the pace, and intensified the characterization and scenes. I reduced the description and created a manuscript that not only met industry standards, but read faster and cleaner.
Diligent writers revise what mediocre writers overlook. Theodore A. Rees Cheney, author of the book, Getting the Words Right, How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise, said, "Seventy-five percent of all revision is eliminating words already written; the remaining twenty-five percent is improving the words that remain.",
One great source I found for perking up my word choice is The Synonym Finder by J.I Rodale, which contains over one million synonyms.
The key to slimming the fat cat is to remain unattached from our words enough to turn aside from their glory. We should place our manuscripts in a hypothetical compost drawer until the thrill of creation diminishes. Give yourself at least twenty-four hours distance from a manuscript before attempting a major reduction. When you review it, ask yourself, "What is this story about?” With that answer in mind, rein in your work.
Whenever I begin the reduction process, I save a new copy of my documents under a separate file name so I can retrieve the eliminated words if necessary. Once I resold a longer version of a manuscript already in print; I was grateful I had saved the original. Theodore Cheney saves his edits in a notebook entitled, "For Possible Inclusion." This bit of self-deception helps him trim the deadweight. Deleting seems less painful and permanent if you file the extra words. It’s like stashing a forbidden candy bar behind a box of healthy cereal in case the mood for extra calories strikes.
The obvious revisions of spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation occur as you write a sentence and reread it. Reduction, on the other hand, involves careful consideration of the completed work for excess calories lurking within. Reduction entails removing or rewording clichés, dislodging weak, passive verbs, varying your sentence lengths and the sounds within your sentences. But before you can accomplish such fine micro-tuning you must begin with the whole picture.
When your word count is tipping the scales of limitations, I recommend reducing and toning your work on paper, rather than on computer. Flip through the manuscript. Note the chapter lengths. Flip through it again. How much white space is there? Do any paragraphs look huge? Do your paragraph lengths vary? Shorter paragraphs add momentum and increase the tension, especially in dialogue. Longer paragraphs slow the story. Variety provides pleasure.
Determine the rhythm by reading your book aloud. Does it sing? Search for places where you ramble or have, as the author, stepped into the character’s shoes. Are you providing commentary on the action? Are you talking about the character rather than revealing him? Consider the dialogue. Would your character use those words? Does your character sound like him, or like you? You can learn about someone by listening to them speak and watching what they do. Who are your characters?
Are you staying in one point of view until you insert a line space or chapter end to shift points of view? Do you jump from one character’s head to another in order to bring in more information? Don’t confuse the reader. Always let the non-viewpoint characters show how they feel through their dialogue and actions while maintaining a consistent point of view.
Look for places where you are tempted to change the writing, then indulge the temptation. As you read, do you notice anything you’ve seen before? Mark it in the margin. If you’ve established that the character has a temper by slamming his fist into a table, you don’t have to hit the wall, too. Removing these excess calories will tighten your manuscript’s belt.
Do two of your chapters accomplish the same purpose? Eliminate one. Do two of your characters fulfill the same role? Combine them. No one will recognize the schizophrenia except you. While checking for repetition, check individual words. Note overused words and replace them.
Check your conflicts. Does a side issue detract from your main conflict? Has any problem become a sideshow? Cut any summaries of what just happened, or explanations about the scenes or characters. Sometimes you will have to delete well-written characters or good scenes to make the story sleek and easier to swallow. Do all your characters and events enhance your story, dragging you breathlessly toward the conclusion? Do your scenes develop and deepen the conflict? If not, eliminate them.
After major reductions, move in a little closer to your work and examine what is left. Your manuscript is stronger, but not as slim as it can be. Consider restricting your use of adverbs and adjectives. Take them out and see what's left. Can a strong verb improve the structure? Can the reader see the action? Show, don't tell. Have Mary slam a cup on the table instead of telling us, "Mary was mad." Can the reader imaginatively engage their five senses as they read?
Reduction is the drastic diet phase in the revision process. It affects a manuscript’s health just as learning to eat right influences our well-being.
Our readers never know what we cut. They will never miss our excess scenes, description or dialogue. Cheney says, “It is only what is finally published that’s important – nothing earlier matters.”
When I was learning to reduce and tone my manuscript, some days I thought I’d die. Then I’d make myself remove a thousand more word calories. It paid off. When I finished slimming my fat cat, that skinny manuscript walked down the runway under editorial consideration, and I sat back and purred.
Slimming the Fat Cat: Placing Your Manuscript on a Diet!
by Pamela Dowd: