Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It’s sharp. It cuts. And a good writer will learn the value of using it with educated precision. By wielding the scalpel, you rid your manuscript of weak words, phrases, scenes, and unnecessary tangents. And as the word count you worked so hard to achieve falls to the floor in a bloody heap you rejoice knowing your manuscript is stronger for the loss.



Both writers new to the business and writers new to the world of publishing must learn the lesson of the scalpel and learn it well. As a newbie, I balked at the idea of cutting anything from my manuscript. Instead of bravely slicing unnecessary words and paragraphs, I would create a separate file for the precious orphans, thinking I might use them later, or that they might be fodder for another book.

Only it never happened.

I quickly discovered that anything worth deleting from a manuscript needed to be deleted *permanently*. No tears. No pining after the hours spent creating the words. If they were marked to be cut then they were inferior. Period. Sounds tough, huh?

I asked some of my writing peers to share their perspective on the cutting process.

Author Frances Devine’s response goes to show that applying the scalpel can be beneficial in more ways than one. “I cut several paragraphs a couple of days ago because I decided I needed to change the end of a scene. It gave me a new outlook on the next chapter.”

Kimberli Buffaloe isn’t published, but she is learning and maturing as a writer. This statement only proves that: “I've learned to push aside my ego and cut for the good of the story. I don't care if I like the line, scene, or chapter, or if I think the sentence is the most clever thing I've ever written. I've slashed 10k during this revision and know it's probable I'll cut at least 1000 more.”

Pam Meyers has learned the value of the scalpel during a revision she did on a manuscript before submitting a proposal. “Once I got into it (cutting words) I loved seeing how the story strengthened as I got rid of the "extra" words. So many times I found I had "Goes Without Saying" or "Resist the Urge to Explain" clauses at the ends of sentences.”

The secret to creating a better story is applying the scalpel. First, you have to learn to see your manuscript not as a work of art, but as a means of communication. Within a manuscript is a theme, a basic idea that you want to convey to the reader.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as Kim said, you have to kill ego. As writers we often become so caught up in ourselves that instead of conducting the orchestra of characters, we want to spotlight each one of our “pretties.” The problem is members of an orchestra who vie for time in the spotlight are taking away from the work they have been brought together to produce. Characters are the same way. The writer is the conductor and the characters must work together to create a beautiful story with a common theme.

Applying the scalpel returns the focus to the theme of the story and puts the writer back in control.

Mike Ehret, editor of ACFW’s e-zine, Afictionado, sums it up it best: “I have never seen cutting words fail to make a piece better.”

Have you ever seen the necessity of cutting words from your manuscript to make it stronger? Have you ever read a story where the author would have benefited from applying the scalpel a little more?


  1. Great post, Sandra!

    I confess that the thought of a scalpel kind of fills me with dread at this point... ;) But I like that idea of an orchestra--the point being that everything needs to fit together succinctly in order to convey the theme/message, and humility is important. :)

    I have to ask, though...what about the Word Count publishers look for? If you cut too much, will you run the risk of not having a long enough book that can be published?


  2. There are two types of writers, those that write way over word count and those who write under word count. Those who set out to write a story marketable to several publishing houses will probably shoot for about 80K on their manuscripts. They might write to 100K, but guess what they will have to do? Apply the scalpel to bring word count down to 80K.

    Different publishers have different target word counts. What are you going to do if you have a manuscript that comes in at 78,500 and the publisher wants 100K? Another wants 75K, and yet another wants 85K? This is part of the dilemma (and hard work) that an author faces. You have to apply the scalpel for the 75K target, but then smart enough to know what scene or character or plotline can be expanded upon to add word count, without simply adding unnecessary bulk, to build the story to 85K and then 100K. Oy!

    Welcome to the world of writers!

  3. Anyone who has ever read James Fenimore Cooper knows that a skillful scalpel could (and possibly should?) have been applied. Take Last of the Mohicans for example. It's a wonderful story. A beautiful, poignant story. But pages and pages of description?? Oy. By the time I finished that one, I was glad for the movie.

  4. Amber, several years ago, I wrote a Scottish historical and had it professionally edited. The freelance editor I hired did a wonderful job, except for one thing...she suggested (strongly) that I cut the first chapter.


    I was devastated, especially because the quality of those first scenes was so beautiful and polished, so poetic and lyrical, I was just certain she simply hadn't taken the time to see it. ;-)

    Now, several years and stories later, I have learned just how wise and knowledgable this lady was. My goal shouldn't be word count, it should be about crafting a quality book where every scene is important. I should probably email her and tell her so...

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Sandra. It's so important to admit, and then cut, for the sake of the story. Great reminder as I'm editing my novel right now.

  6. Glad to be of service, Terri. I'm reminding myself, too, as I consider a long length of unnecessary words in my current manuscript. Yikes! It's not the cutting that hurts me most, for I truly do know the ms will be better for it, it's cutting word count. Because, you see, this ms is due March 1. SOMEone is going to have to really get her fingers dancing.

  7. Yes, thanks for the reminder, Sandra. I'm as yet unpublished, like the other writers of whom you spoke. I've been practicing the "cut" method for a long while as I write comments on blogs, Facebook and personal letters. It's fun to do it right, and sometimes you can overdo it. I am trying to get up the nerve to finish the stories I've started. I am enjoying the learning process, particularly blog articles such as yours. Do you know a blog site particularly for unpublished and fearful writers? LOL I'd be the first to join. Do you personally have a blog that is teaching the art of book writing? If so, I'd like to sign up. God bless your efforts at finishing that important manuscript for the publishers. I have a feeling you'll be finished ahead of time.

    Sharing His Love,
    Barb Shelton
    barbjan10 at tx dot rr dot com


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