Very rarely, I edit a manuscript that is so sparsely written that it ends up getting longer through standard revisions. I know a number of authors who fall into this category; they write bare-bones first drafts, then go back and flesh out the detail on a later pass, adding sensory information and sometimes entirely new scenes.
This is not the normal way editing goes, however. The process of editing is almost always a process of paring down a long piece into a shorter, more refined final product. The manuscripts get shorter, sometimes by a little and other times by a lot. Authors who use the bare-bones method have to be very strong writers, confident in what they’re doing and knowing exactly what their story will need.
Most writers work the other way around. I’m one of them, and chances are so are you.
Certainly, my own books get shorter. Sometimes much shorter. When I write a first draft, I pack it full of everything I can think of. The characters say more than they should, observe and interact with more of their environment than is strictly necessary, and occasionally go on mini adventures that are tangential to the plot. There’s often too much exposition and too much backstory. In other words, I overwrite. I do this because it’s a lot easier to cut a book down to size, in my opinion, than it is to add entirely new material to flesh out a story that’s too slight to sustain a reader’s interest or communicate the plot and characters effectively.
Let’s say I’m aiming to have a book in the range of 100,000 words. My first draft is probably going to be at least 110,000 words—in practice, probably closer to 120,000, give or take. This gives me a lot of extra material to work with. Once the raw output is achieved, I can set about carving it down to exactly the right size.
I once attended a lecture by bestselling author Brandon Sanderson, who laid out his strategy for revising. He explained that he always cut ten percent, minimum. Always. He would calculate exactly how many words that was for any given chapter, then wouldn’t stop revising that chapter, no matter what, until he had taken out at least ten percent, if not more. You could hardly find a better professional writer out there, and still he follows this method, constraining himself by this very disciplined approach.
I think it’s brilliant, and I’ve been a strong proponent of the ten percent rule ever since I heard of it. What makes the strategy so effective is that it rarely results in entire scenes, or even entire paragraphs, from being dropped. Rather, it’s a word here or a word there. You take a twenty-word sentence and chop it down to seventeen. If you do that consistently, it’s not hard to reduce your overall word count by ten percent or more, easy, without having to lose anything truly substantive.
As a result, my work is now tighter and sharper in every way. If you’re looking for ways to tighten up your own writing, consider giving this a try. You got a 3,451-word chapter in your book? Open the file and don’t close it again until that chapter’s down to 3,106 words. Trust me; it’ll be better for it. After a while, if you do this long enough, you’ll gain the ability to confidently cull your own writing with barely any gnashing of teeth.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.