I was recently helping my daughter with one of her college application questions—okay, it wasn’t that recent; it was a few months ago. But when I was done helping her edit said question, I jotted down a note to blog about what I had learned from the experience. I haven’t needed that note until now (which is partly due to me reading a number of series, so I don’t have any fresh book reviews for you until those are finished).
I was helping edit an essay question about my daughter’s nonfiction life, but there was a moment in the process where I realized something about fiction. About my fiction. Something I had been told before, but suddenly seemed like the wisdom of the universe and like I could use it in some almost-tangible way. This wisdom? Make it shorter. Cut. Cutting is your friend. I noticed, while cutting back on her essay (which is what she had asked me to help her with, anyways, and I had agreed because even though I have other people to defer to for other editorial services in life-changing situations, I am pretty darn good at cutting) that even though she nor I wanted to cut—even though both she and I thought the essay was strong the way it was—it got better as we cut. And I realized, while realizing that, that I had been forced to cut to a word count many times before for articles and maybe a few other things and that every time it got better as I cut.
There is a point, right? A point where cutting is going to do some damage to a piece of writing. Not every novel is meant to be a novella. Not every novella a short story. Not every short story, flash fiction. Not every flash piece, a poem. But I can almost guarantee for you—and definitely for me—that when I think I’m on a final draft, the work could shed a few more literary pounds. It’s difficult to notice all those extra words and those flabby words until someone or something forces you to choose: it has to be 100 words, lady, and you have written 150. Now make some choices! Suddenly, there they are. I can find them, though sometimes it takes a walkthrough and then another and then another, hacking away at unnecessary words with each pass, grabbing more words and tying them together into neater packages.
The experience followed by my musing made me think this: that after my final draft (aka. the draft before I try to sell it) of a work of any length, I need to set a word-reduction goal and then go for it. The problem is that I don’t know what that reduction goal should be. It depends on my writing in general, and my writing on that piece in specific. I have a book right now in fast drafting that has been streeeeeetching out for months and it looks like a 150,000 word whopper by the time I finish next month. Ahem. My goal for this one might be 30%. Or more. Usually, I would say 10% is pretty optimistic for a final draft of mine, though I have the feeling that going a good 50-100% more than whatever goal you think is reasonable is where it’s at (by which I mean 50-100% of the GOAL, not the TOTAL). Sure, it’ll feel like “killing my darlings,” it’ll be painful (mostly to my pride) and take time. But I really think that cutting is where it’s at to tighten a piece of writing, and if you don’t have an agent or editor (or application submission form number in glowing red) hanging over your shoulder to tell you to do it and how much, then you need to be that crazy person, yourself. Go ahead, roll your eyes at yourself and mutter imprecations under your breath, but it’ll be worth it as you watch sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, even the whole manuscript (if it’s longer than pages) define itself into a neater, cleaner, clearer, and more beautiful form as you face down your laziness and attachment and truly hunt the artistic and worthy.