AUTHORS: 2 cases to consider cutting a paragraph before fighting to make it work

1148655_vintage_fountain_pen_3Editing is ALWAYS tough, and I honestly think authors learn how to be editors– how to trim down their work–the hard way. You kind of have to. It’s the only way you can learn that kind of a skill: by doing (read “by attempting, failing, and trying again.”)

At least, learning by doing was true in my case. And I’m still learning. If nothing else, by now I can say I’ve made a ton of editing mistakes that I’ve learned from.

First and foremost, perhaps, is  the lesson not to wait to ask “Can I fix this problem by cutting?” Don’t waste time trying fruitless to fix something, or fixing it up halfway , only to realize you really haven’t solved the problem.

Make sure you ask “Can I make a cut?” FIRST. It will save you a lot of frustration and a lot of time.

Here are some circumstances when you should ask “Can I cut?”


Sometimes, it’s true, your wording is simply awkward. What you need to say is important, and you’re simply not saying it in the simplest way or the best way or in a way that emphasizes what you need to emphasize.

More often, though, I’ve found that when I come across a paragraph or a sentence that feels awkwardly worded–in the sense that it doesn’t flow–it’s because some part of the content (if not all)  isn’t necessary. It’s repetitious, or it weighs things down, or it complicates silly things that don’t need to be made complicated.

Many times, when my writing feels awkward to me, it’s because I’m trying to explain too many things at once. And I’ve made various attempts to make things sound better that don’t REALLY work because the problem is as much “how much I’m saying” as “the way I’m phrasing things.”

Can I improve things by rephrasing? Generally, yes, to a greater or lesser extent. But I have found, far more often, that I can only get the passage sounding right by cutting. Cutting cutting cutting.

Saying too much at once is always a problem. But, you might be thinking, what if some of that information is needed? What if it’s vital to the story?

In that case, consider moving it to another place in your story. Considering placing that description or that piece of backstory elsewhere. Get creative: I have been so wonderfully surprised at how moving half a paragraph, or a paragraph or two, can improve not ONLY the spot in my novel where all the clutter was, but also the scene where it finds its new location. Its true fit.

It’s like that information was meant to be in that second home all along.


Through the course of a trilogy, you get lots of characters. And lots of complicated relationships and backstories. Referencing them, or reminding readers who a minor character is when that character appears or is mentioned, takes a lot of finesse.

One tip about backstory: it should be backstory for a reason, meaning, it’s not as important as the actual events of your story. If it were, your story would start earlier on to include these epically important events. Remember:

  • Backstory rarely needs to be as detailed or as intricate as we first believe, by the simple nature of what “backstory” is
  • You don’t have to reveal EVERYTHING about backstory all at once, in one big word vomit. Give up pieces and parts. Craft a mystery about the past to get readers asking questions and wanting answers. Just make sure you answer later on.

I have spent SO much time trying to find the right way to transition in and transition back. To explain things simply. To keep things  understandable. I try this and then that. I almost never think to ask, “How much of this backstory reminder is truly necessary?”

I have found myself cutting tons of the first chapter of “The King’s Sons” as I prep for a second edition. And I’m excited about the positive changes. Also, frustrated that I didn’t see this fix the first time around.

You see, you need to put yourself in the reader’s mind. And I’ve figured out I can  trust my readers to remember the major background of the protagonists from my previous two installments. I don’t need to worry about people picking up book 3 who have never read the first books; notes at the start explaining how this is book 3 of a trilogy should settle that and clear up any confusion.

So, have you found, like me, that after exhausting yourself editing, fixing, and changing, and rearranging, you just end up cutting because you needed to cut all along?

Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it takes trying other things first and failing to make us see, “this passage just isn’t needed. That’s why I can’t make it work.” But still, the less often it comes to that, the better, don’t you think?

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.”


18 responses to “AUTHORS: 2 cases to consider cutting a paragraph before fighting to make it work

  1. I am doing that now. I finally have the story, now I am walking through to tidy the bits of it up. I have surprised everytime I dig through this one how much is tilting in odd directions or just repetitious wordings.

  2. I don’t cut as much as I merge sentences. Almost like I draw something out too much. Though I guess some cutting does occur there. To be fair, I’ve had to drop a lot of whimsical history parts that were only there for my own entertainment. It was only in the first 3 books and I was doing it to establish that these characters had a life prior to the adventure. Found it was easier to do gradually and fit childhood tales in when they were more natural.

    You know, I always see authors talking about cutting down a first draft. How often do people add into a scene that is too flimsy? I tend to do this a lot more than I chop things out.

    • I definitely have had some scenes I’ve had to flush out. Particularly when I move part of another scene to flush it out (after deleting most of the other scene). I’ve definitely, especially in my first unpublished novel, fleshed lots of things out. Of course, that started as a short story, haha, so maybe it doesn’t count?

      i guess on one (rather superficial) level, it depends on how minimalist one is in a first draft and how minimalist one wants the final draft to be. How philosophic/meandering one likes to be and how much one wants to give “just the facts.”

  3. I like your thoughts about backstory, Victoria. I’ve read some books with too much backstory for even minor characters, and others that don’t have enough backstory so that I forget who everyone is. It’s quite a balance to maintain!

  4. I feel your pain! Been there, done that…still going there, still doing that. True, I’m becoming more proficient–developing an eagle eye, so to speak–but to be honest, it never gets any easier for me. There’s no simple way around the revising/editing part of writing: It’s just plain hard work!

  5. I cut first, ask questions later. The vast majority of my editing style isn’t cutting out a word here or there, it’s rewriting an entire paragraph (or paragraphs) to say the original thing faster and in fewer words. I just edited a part of my novel where almost every scene was a massive cut in the wordcount. Lots of words didn’t need to be there.

  6. I tend to go through phases. I’ll go through a patch of dramatically cutting, learn what it was I was cutting out, and then stop doing that. Then a little while later I’ll work out what the next thing is I need less of, start cutting that a lot, learn the habit of not doing it, etc. Cutting is definitely my friend, but how I use it varies.

    • That makes sense. I really like your point about learning from WHY we’re making the cuts we are and improving our writing as a result; i mean, improving our first drafts by avoiding (or at least doing less) of the thing we are cutting a lot of.

      • As in education, it’s closing the feedback loop. If you’ve spotted something that doesn’t work then just keeping on fixing it is a waste of energy. What counts is learning to get it right.

  7. Sure wish I could have read this 2 years ago when I was writing my first book. I wasted a lot of time trying to fix things that simply didn’t fit. Great advice that I’ll be applying as I’m now writing book 2. I think you’ve saved me many lost hours and headaches. Thanks! 🙂

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