One Type of “Small” Edit That Makes A HUGE Difference In Your Writing

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 2.39.00 PMCutting down on your word count can be a difficult task for any author, though this is a large part of editing. The very vast majority, if not all, of us have a lot of unneeded information in our novels that we just don’t need. As I re-edit my Herezoth trilogy for an Autumn release of new editions, I realize where a lot of my cuts are coming from:

  • Unneeded repetition or emphasis
  • Unneeded descriptions or elaborations of people, places, or things
  • Over-explanation, or explaining concepts that aren’t confusing or interesting

Number three is something I think we are all guilty of as writers. We get to a point where we don’t want to confuse the reader, so we want to make sure something is clear. And then we overdo it. You know what they say paves the road to hell, right?

Maybe it’s an inherent “contradiction” in character motives that truly isn’t a contradiction, but the result of changing circumstances or of growth. Characters sometimes change their minds, sure. We don’t necessarily HAVE to explain away every instance of that, or every time a character says one thing and then does something that implies the opposite. Sometimes, perhaps. But not always.

Now, my focus today is actually on the first list item, because I’m cutting a lot of redundancies and repetitions. Especially in dialogue, though elsewhere as well. What do I mean by that?

I’m taking about instances like this (which doesn’t come from any of my novels, as I write fantasy, but it demonstrates what I’m talking about):

A: “He was lying to you.”

B: “Lying?”

A: “Why would he need to go downtown to get groceries? There’s a Trader Joe’s two miles away.”

Now, depending on the setting, the characters, and the story this repetition and emphasis might be useful. Maybe B is a very naive character, and this scene is a wake-up call and a turning point in terms of disillusion and frustration.

More likely, though, it’s just not necessary. You could easily cut out B’s line entirely, and more than likely, A’s first line as well. A’s second line, by itself, implies skepticism. It indicates fully that A doesn’t believe what “he” said.

However, maybe A is a direct, brash, and even insensitive person. Maybe A is intending to be harsh with B, to imply, “you’re a fool for not seeing this.” In that case, the overemphasis might make sense. You might want to keep both parts of A’s dialogue, joining them if you cut B’s.

You always have to consider your characters’ personalities and intentions when writing dialogue. Not just word count.

Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Little changes can make a big difference, especially when they add up.

But–and this is important to remember–it’s not always about word count.

Sure, B’s line is only one word. Sure, that’s not “cutting” much at all. But it could vastly improve the pacing, the tone, and the readability of the passage.

Small changes like that–which I make all the time–are really some of the best edits I have ever made. This is especially true after a first draft. A LOT of my first draft edits involve cutting down, say, three pieces consecutive pieces of dialogue like that to one. Which leads me to one last reflection:

We don’t write dialogue like people talk.

People talk with lots of interjections. Not just “er”s and “um”s and “like”s, but:


“I don’t believe it!”

“You’re kidding me!”

“He’s such an idiot.”



This, however, just leads to much repetition and a lack of readable dialogue in fiction. It’s also a crutch that I know I fall upon and use for EASY and LAZY ways to emphasize everything in first drafts.

Editing that stuff out forces me to cut back, but it also makes me get more creative in how I emphasize what matters.

So, do you find you repeat yourself this way too? Do you find you have lots of short, reactive, interjective dialogue, or dialogue that can really be cut back because it’s repeating one message various ways?


Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

You can also sign up to follow this blog by email at the top right of the page


23 responses to “One Type of “Small” Edit That Makes A HUGE Difference In Your Writing

  1. Great Post Victoria,
    There are so many small things that we can do to make our writing sharper and punchy. It brings the reader in if they are constantly being enriched by the story and not the authors ego flim flam that wants to keep everything. Less is more!

    • So, so true!!! Love what you say about ego here. It really is an ego issue in a lot of ways. That’s why it’s so hard but also why editing can teach us a lot of useful things to help us not only in writing but also in real life.

  2. I’m not sure, but I think, maybe, I might just be guilty of repetition like that. You know, the stuff you were talking about, the type of thing you mentioned. Perhaps.

  3. Miss Alexandrina

    I love how much of a contradiction writing can be at times: “Write realistic dialogue. But, uh, don’t write how people speak in real life.”

    • I know, right???? It’s kind of nuts. A crazy balancing act with lots of paradoxes built in.

      • Miss Alexandrina

        Yeah – like the paradox of voice versus showing and grammatical precision. How does one know what is correct?? I feel like I’ve been editing for ever! *hits head against laptop*

  4. I tend to be pretty ruthless with myself on this. Few things bug me more than writing that’s repetitive or over-expository, and so I purge that stuff when it slips into my work. And sometimes what seems a natural piece of dialogue first time round is all kinds of clunky on re-reading.

  5. I use repetition for emphasis, but I try to clear it up during edits. I’ve found that characters do repeat themselves when trying to explain something in detail. It probably comes from me getting my thoughts in order during the first draft stage.

  6. I recently edited a manuscript where every character spoke in the same short, declarative sentences. Not only did they all sound alike, but the repetitive sentence structure was first boring and then annoying. I love your statement that “Editing . . . also makes me get more creative in how I emphasize what matters.” So true!

  7. When I revise my manuscripts, I cut 10-15% from the story. I strip away as much redundancy as possible and condense dialogue. I also cut down on “internal dialogue” and description. All of these things can weigh down a story and start boring the reader. I have one novel I’d like to republish, because I know that the book needs a good “housecleaning”–but at least I’m aware of the issues. My mantra: Make every word count!

  8. Since my blog i nominate you to the “The Versatile Blogger Award” here the link Thank you for be an inspiration

  9. Cate Russell-Cole

    You’re spot on Victoria. I murdered 2000+ words last night, cutting out the excess, but I am glad I did it. There was too much world building description and I found information repetition on an ibook formatted read through. I’m glad I did it.

  10. Reblogged this on synaptic overload and commented:
    I am editing my first two novels for publication and I am encountering these exact situations. I lost over 5,000 words from Teller’s Cove and expect about the same percentage of Pressee to go the way of the dodo.

  11. Pingback: Links that are hotter than July | Becky Black

  12. After my initial draft came out to 175,000 words, I strove to cut out 75,000 to get down to 100,000, knowing that I had a lot of extra info. I’ve read a few self-published and independent works lately and the biggest fault I find is they are all over 300 pages (125,000+) words. I get to the point where I think “This book could have ended 6 Chapters ago.”
    Good advice on that one.

  13. Pingback: Five Links Friday 7/31/15 | Write Good Books

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s