It’s easy enough, when talking about editing fiction, to say that a writer should cut everything that doesn’t contribute in a tangible way to the progression of the story. This can be a word (usually ADVERBS), a phrase, a sentence, even a paragraph or scene. This is common advice–to the point that people despair and think editing ONLY means cutting. While that’s not true, you should generally cut more than you add.
That being so, what does it mean to “contribute in a tangible way to the progression of the story?” There are various ways a part of your novel can do this.
- ADVERBS. These are generally unnecessary and seriously weaken your writing. Cut as many as you possibly can. As Stephen King says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And Mark Twain once noted (perhaps very facetiously) that he always replaced the word “very” with “damn.” That way his editor would quite assuredly get rid of it.
- CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. A really good story has a fun plot, but if the reader can’t identify with and doesn’t care about the characters, that reader isn’t going to care what happens to them. If something you’re considering cutting helps to throw a spotlight on who your characters are and why the reader should invest emotionally in them, then it should stay.
- CLARITY. If a passage clarifies something important–a motive, a reason why a likely course of action isn’t possible after all, if it gives some backstory that’s vital–then it’s important. However, if it’s backstory, make sure it’s given in such a way that it’s not an information dump. Spread it out.
- SETTING THE SCENE. Setting the scene is important, to help your reader feel grounded and description is good. Just be careful about describing a setting or a person to a greater degree than necessary–especially one that isn’t pivotal to the story and occurs only once. That slows the pace down and distracts the reader, who can’t be sure what places, people,and events are important.
- PLOT ADVANCEMENT. These are action scenes that, well, advance the plot. Pretty self-explanatory. Be careful within plot advancement scenes with redundancies: unless you’re meaning to emphasize it for a specific reason–one you can describe in detail to yourself–you don’t need to state something in two or more different ways. Once is enough.
I’ve noticed in my own writing that the paragraphs I spend thirty minutes agonizing over are generally the ones I can cut significantly, if not completely. I advise that after five minutes working with a paragraph, stop and read the previous paragraph, then skip over the problem one to the one that follows. Cut the whole problem paragraph if you can, and if not, considering combining what few pieces of information there are pivotal to either the paragraph above or below. This isn’t foolproof, but it’s worked for me on multiple occasions.