4 Steps To Slashing that Manuscript in Revision

My mission: Reduce a 384-page first-draft memoir manuscript to 300 pages. Why? Because I know a tighter book will be a more pleasurable read, and because I know it will be easier to sell a shorter book to a publisher than a longer one.

The map I made of my memoir's four narrative lines as I anticipated them moving through the book. This was a useful guide in revision, but ultimately I let the story tell me what was right in each chapter. Two of those boxes are now gone, the chapters deleted entirely.

The map I made of my memoir’s four narrative lines as I anticipated them moving through the book. This was a useful guide in revision, but ultimately I let the story tell me what was right in each chapter. Two of those boxes are now gone, the chapters deleted entirely.

I’ve spent the last two months revising the memoir I wrote in my MFA program, weaving together my four narrative lines and ensuring uniformity of plot and voice. During the revision I relocated details and recollections and even added details I felt were necessary for reader comprehension, all while focused on reducing page count. I have just completed my first pass through the manuscript, and the page count is now 301.

I will do a bit more trimming before sending it to the freelance editor I’ve hired to give it one final look. She may want me to add details here and there, but I’m confident that when my agent begins circulating the manuscript around the end of September the page count may even begin with the numeral 2.

I was curious how I cut the manuscript by 83 pages. In looking back on my edits, I see four basic approaches. I’ll list them here, in order of effectiveness at reducing page count from least to most. A reminder that this manuscript is a memoir. Other approaches might be appropriate for other book-length works:

  • Simple tightening of prose. (15% of deleted pages.) Did I really need fourteen words in that sentence when eight would do? Didn’t I just make that point two pages ago? Do I need this additional explanatory text or haven’t I articulated my point sufficiently already? This is the type of editing we all should be doing with every revision. It is a kindness to our readers. But it’s not sufficient to significantly reduce page count.
  • Scene to summary. (20%). When describing action we often provide more detail than is really necessary. You can describe how you walked across the lawn, pulled your hand out of your pocket, and knocked on the door, or you can show yourself standing at the door being greeted by the homeowner. I kept details that added to the mood or the understanding of the scene, but deleted others, at times reducing a series of actions to a summary sentence.
  • Scene deletion. (30%). This was the hardest action for me, deleting scenes in their entirety. I would ask myself after reading each scene what value it brought the overall story. With two scene-based chapters I realized the total value of each could be described in a paragraph. So now those chapters are gone, and that material stands as solitary paragraphs in the next chapter.
  • Tightening dialogue. (35%). Much of my memoir consists of conversations during a cross-country road trip, both with artists and with folks I met along the way. Dialogue can read fast, but it can also be filled with extraneous material. Reporters learn to take long sections of dialogue and reduce it to a few lines of summary. I preserved in dialogue the lines that best informed the reader of the speaker and provided the most narrative impact. Other portions of the conversation I reduced to paraphrased summary. And still others I deleted entirely.

I must emphasize that this process was both euphoric and horrifying. It often felt like the latter when I executing these cuts. (I use the word executing intentionally here.) I deleted some turns of phrase of which I was particularly proud. Some scenes I tightened or deleted were the result of extensive labor, a few having gone through multiple drafts. And each line of dialogue summarized or cut hurt, because I care about the people I’ve interviewed and I hate denying them additional space. But the euphoria would come in when I would look at my page count in the lower left of Word and see a lower number than when I began that day.

In a newsroom it is not uncommon to hear an editor, dealing with a reporter flipping out over their favorite part of a story being deleted, say “No reader is going to miss what they didn’t know was there.” This is of course true with all writing. The newsroom parlance for forcing yourself to let go of some of your favorite parts of your story is “killing your babies,” which reflects the course tone of the media game but also cuts to the core of the difficulty of deletion. I learned as a reporter, however, that I might be able to take that deleted section and later write a new story where it could be reincorporated and would now be essential to the story. I’m telling myself I can do the same with the 83 pages I have now cut. How many personal essays can I spin out of that material?

We are often told that true creative writing is in the revision. What is the hardest part of revision for you?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

34 Responses to “4 Steps To Slashing that Manuscript in Revision”

  1. I have the opposite problem, Patrick. I am a big underwriter! I think the first draft of my novel was 250 pages, and then the final draft was 330. For me, revision often means slowing a scene down, and developing character more. I tend to want to just get to the meat of the scene– and rush myself to get there!

    • Silly me! I’m constantly preaching how every creative has his or her own process, and here I assume everyone is like me, overwriting on first drafts. It’s good you know your own system, Anjali. I should note that I too have to flesh out some things at times, the slowing down to which you refer, and I did some of that in this revision, meaning I actually cut more than 83 pages since I had added a few.

  2. Yes, tightening of prose! I tend to write the way I speak, which is great for setting a conversational tone. But then I look back and find I sometimes repeat myself or have excess words — the way you naturally would when speaking before an audience and trying to emphasize a point strongly enough.

    • Rob, that’s great you’re aware that you do that, and edit accordingly. I like a voice that is conversational. I think my voice is conversational but it is not a mirror of the way I talk; it’s more the way I wish I talked.

  3. Patrick… I’m often like Anjali, starting small and then fattening the calf, and I’ll tell you how that happens. I’ll be “revising” and let’s say I eliminate a character! Yikes. But of course that character doesn’t just disappear because the repercussions are profound. Any significant actions she made now have to be given to other characters. Which alters their scenes. My “problem” is that the more I work on a piece of fiction, the more I see in it and the more complex it becomes. Which requires more revisions. Ever more. No wonder it takes me years to write a long-form work of fiction.

    • See my reply to Anjali on my oops moment.

      Yes to the ripple effect. That was a big part of this revision. I’d delete something early and then found I was harkening back to it later. In one case I liked the echo so much I went back and reinserted what I had deleted! I also moved some things around. The trip part I can’t do that with; this happened, then that happened. But the background reveals did need some relocating at times because I wrote the book over four semesters out of order, so sometimes an early chapter would assume reader knowledge of something not revealed until later. Not good!

      As to the time you take, I first started this memoir in the fall of 2010, so I’ve been at it three years. Oh, and I wrote about fifty pages prior to starting at VCFA in the summer of 2011, and probably three sentences of those 50 pages are still in the manuscript. Revision is a brutal muse mistress.

  4. In the draft I’m revising right now I was told by my proofreader that it was way underwritten in terms of sensory description. Big learning moment that added a good ten thousand words!

    • Yes, we need to give our readers sensory details. My hero in this regard is Hemingway. There’s a misperception that his lean prose meant he skipped a lot of sensory detail. He didn’t labor over detail the way contemporaries like Faulkner or Fitzgerald did, but Papa was also a journalist and he could pack all five senses in a couple of sentences. Remarkable.

  5. Great post, Patrick. Happy to hear you’re so close to final draft and submission with your memoir!

    It’s interesting to read about your process. Your post and the comments from some of the fiction writers brings out an interesting distinction in the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing, I think. As a writer of both, I too find my process is different depending on what I’m working on (though I hadn’t really analyzed the difference until now, so thank you). Like you, with nonfiction I tend to overwrite and then need to trim and fine-tune and condense. Yet with my fiction, my first draft is always so lean, then I need to go back many times to layer in detail, nuance, tension, etc.

    • You know, Jessica, I wonder if there is a fiction/nonfiction divide here. Certainly reporters often overwrite, in part because you sometimes don’t realize what the real news of the story is (especially if you’re on a tight deadline) until you start writing it. Maybe there’s a blog post here. But I’ve certainly been in plenty of CNF workshops where it was clear the student had underwritten. Usually it was those places they really didn’t want to write about. Thanks for sharing your differing approaches, and thanks for the good wishes!

  6. Great post — I love reading about other writers’ processes. What really impresses me about this post is how you are able to quantify what you changed. I find that to be my biggest challenge as I revise: organization of changes. Inevitably I later wish I could go back and see the “paper trail” of my changes. I keep drafts by date and number so I can always look at earlier drafts but I still feel that I can’t track specific changes that way…which you seem to have done, so I’d be so interested in how you did that… software or estimation? Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Hi Julia, welcome back! I’m not a big believer in software specifically for creative writing, but I do sometimes use Word’s compare documents feature to look at versions. They are estimates, but I think pretty solid ones. I’d note that I did my first revisions on paper, and sometimes did that a second time with a chapter if it had been significantly rewritten. It is my experience that the eye sees things on paper that it doesn’t on the screen. So when you can spread a bunch of pages out in front of you and see the cross-outs and rewrites you get a pretty good sense of things. Plus, as I got deeper into the book and had this window on where I was getting my reductions, I think I then began doing that intentionally, recognizing where I’d have the best luck reducing the page count. Having worked at magazines and newsletters where we had to track an article through five or six different editing stages, I may perhaps be a bit more highly attuned to changes in drafts.

  7. Nice post, Patrick! I’m with Julia ^. How’d you know how much each accomplished? Or are you just guessing? I’ve experienced similar things with my manuscripts, although based just on instinct I’d probably put their level of effectiveness in a different order. Congrats on getting to you new page goal!

    • Hello Annie, see my reply to Julia on my calculation method. As to level of effectiveness, I think it would vary for me based on the work but also the stage I’m in. I’m editing a draft that has already had its chapters go through revisions with MFA advisors, so the prose was already pretty tight. If we’re talking a first draft for me, I could easily cut it in half just by targeting excess verbosity. I come to this revision having already trimmed the obvious fat.

  8. These are great tips, especially for beginners like myself. Thank you, Mr. Ross.

  9. I find that the editing process can be just as exhilarating as the writing of rough draft. It’s a particular kind of magic. However, the edit stage can also become somewhat endless, it’s hard to know when to stop. I got a manuscript back a couple of months ago, that I hadn’t looked at in 9 months. At the time I submitted it, the story was perfect in my eye. Now that it’s back, after all I’ve learned in the last 9 months? It’s back-to-the-drawing-board, baby. Needs a complete overhaul. Sigh.

    • Blessed are ye who will consider a complete overhaul necessary after once thinking it perfect. I bet the end product will be better than 95% of the writing out there. Good for you, Yvette.

    • Oh my, do I know that story. I have a personal essay that is now in queue for such a rewrite, having returned from a near-miss with a top journal. It has been almost a year since I worked on it, and I too want to give it a complete overhaul. But I have also been guilty in the past of over-editing, of draining the life out of a work because it drags on over such a period of time–this one was started more than two years ago–that I lose the spark that led to its original creation. Like PJ, I trust your instincts on the need for an overhaul, but I have to monitor that instinct in myself.

  10. These are great tips! I sort of love revising. What I don’t love is getting the original draft down. That part is the hardest for me and requires way too much procrastination on the front end.

    • I’m with you, Nina. I’ll take working on a second draft over generating a first any day. Many writers are not like that, but that first draft is like drawing blood, frightening to initiate and queasy to experience. It’s far easier to later treat the wound and clean up the blood.

    • I’m with you Nina! I’ve been working on my novel for almost three years now…I keep deleting and starting over, then I just sit and stare at the blank document and wait for a miracle!

  11. “No reader is going to miss what they didn’t know was there.” Now, that is a gem!

  12. I have the same problem. My first draft is 323 pages/193,000 words long and since I’ve never been published before, I think the long length would put potential publishers off. I find it so difficult to delete scenes, but I think the “scene to summary” point will be really helpful.

    • Hi Charlotte, good luck! That’s a lot of words for only 323 pages. I tend to do Times New Roman 12 point double spaced, it’s what an instructor asked of me a couple of years ago and I just stuck with it. I think that would make your page count even longer. Are you writing a novel or nonfiction work? With novels there’s usually some guidance as to what publishers want, and if it’s genre fiction it often is less than 100K for a new author, I believe. Hard work!

      • cwoolnoughwriting Reply August 30, 2013 at 6:06 pm

        Hi, thank you for you response. I am writing a novel so I will try to aim to cut my word count down as much as possible. I’m in the process of editing and re-writing now.

  13. Hi Patrick, I just found your blog, so I’m late to the party. Even so, I have a question please. My book is about my experience with cancer. I consider it to be inspirational and informative. My word count is 10,700 and I formatted the manuscript the same as you. My writing teacher thinks its too short. She thinks publishers want at least 60,000 words. Also, I want my book to be artsy, meaning having the chapter titles framed in collage paper and to have that page all to themselves. I will also add photos of me. Do I have to wait for a publisher to accept me first and only supply them with content? Any thoughts? Thank you!

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