Editing Tips: Cut, Polish, and Repeat

After writing 480 pages and fixing things my critique group pointed out along the way, I figured Twice upon a Trip was nearly done. Seven years of research and writing lay behind me and the finish line was in sight. I let the book marinate on the shelf for a few weeks, then took a quick look and cut ten pages I loved, but knew didn’t fit with the story line. Time to start querying agents!

Elizabeth Evans of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency was one of the first agents I contacted. Great news—she responded immediately and loved the concept. Not so great—she informed me, “The high word count suggests to me that there’s still a lot of editing that needs to happen before the project would be saleable. The target range is 65,000-100,000 words.” To meet the upper limit, I’d have to cut 53,000 words—over a third of my laborious work. My tome needed tough love.

Encouraged by Elizabeth’s half-positive reply and thankful for her advice, I started Edit #1—going after the plumpest, low-hanging paragraphs. Here are a few tips I gleaned:

  1. Create a separate computer file to hold the cuts. (I named mine “Axed Chunks” in a flash of optimism to embolden my efforts.)
  2. Look for digressions that don’t quite fit the focus of the book.
  3. Cut and paste them into “Axed Chunks.” (It gave me solace knowing that, although gone from my book, those masterfully phrased passages still lived somewhere.)
  4. Rinse and repeat.

After two edits (each cutting about 12,000 words), I still had a long way to go. Edit #3 proceeded word by word, like this:

  1. Look for thoughts expressed two ways; cut the weaker one.
  2. Trim out all but the most relevant, tightly worded details.
  3. Cut as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, substituting stronger nouns and verbs.
  4. Make a list of any words or phrases that appear often. Set it aside and move on.
  5. Go back to step 1 and do it again.

Edits #3 and #4 clipped another 10,700 words. Edit #5:

  1. Scan the whole document for the first entry on the “Used Often” list. Each time it’s found, decide if it’s really needed, or if a synonym might be better. Cut or reword at least half of the occurrences.
  2. Repeat for every entry on the list. (FYI, mine included: a little, a bit, right, really, small, immediately, encounter, straight, quite, about, a few, info, certainly, finally, most, all the, beautiful, still, actually…)

My five edits lowered the count to 117,000 words. Though not in the bull’s eye, at least my arrow glanced off the rim of the target instead of flying way over it. If other writers have more editing tips to improve my aim, please share them. 36,000 words down, only 17,000 to go…


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