The mark of a really good book

scrisor-scissor dancers

Cut It Out: The Editing Process

The call ends.  I sit for a moment cradling the phone.  Reviewing the conversation, I arrive at the final heave-ho: I’ve been asked, in the most polite terms, to cut my manuscript by one-fifth.  That’s 25,000 words.

The usual suspects

I begin with the obvious and search through the document for words to contract.  It quickly becomes apparent, however, that as much as I might wish it, I don’t have 50,000 opportunities to turn ‘it is’ and ‘did not’ into ‘it’s’ and ‘didn’t’.  I’ll need other strategies.

Hmmmn.  I remember that Graham Greene hated adverbs and claimed never to use them.  Although adverbs promise emphasis, they often do the reverse.  They often empty a sentence of meaning, sucking out force and verve.  Surely, my manuscript has a few hundred injudicious adverbs I can cut.

Next I turn my critical eye to repetitions.  What seemed so interesting, poetic and lyrical in the passion of composition now strikes me as overdone (not to mention a good opportunity to get rid of some words).  There are a few scenes where I leave in certain repetitions because it heightens the emotional tenor.  These are made stronger now by the fact that repetitions are less frequently used.

Be meaningful

I recall the criticism of the judge of a competition I once entered.  In the kindest terms, she suggested that the dialogue in my submission was weak.  After the initial sting eased, I reread it, and she was right.  In getting to know my characters, I let them babble.  This time through the manuscript, I cast a critical eye on every spoken word and ask: Is this statement essential to the story?  Does it move the plot forward?  Does it reveal something crucial about the characters?  If I can’t answer yes, I cut it.

A quick word count shows I have 19,000 words to go.

In medias res

In the middle of all of this drafting and cutting, I’m asked to judge a regional writing contest.  The winning entries all begin in the middle of things.  The other judges and I concur that this brings about an immediacy and an excitement the other entries lack.  In fact, many of the submissions make the mistake of starting too far back, lacing the work with details and cross-hatching a history that pulls the narrative down.  I race back to my desk in a flurry, wondering whether scenes in my novel do this too.

In medias res is Latin for ‘into the middle of things’.  Described by Horace in ‘Ars Poetica’, in medias res is a literary and artistic technique in which the narrative starts in the middle of the story instead of from its beginning (otherwise known as ab ovo or ab initio).  It’s a handy way to create interest, movement and suspense.  This not only applies to the complete narrative but also to chapters and scenes within chapters.

Think about it.  One of the most interesting things about meeting someone new is how much there is to learn.  Knowing everything about someone or something straight off and in strict chronological order is dull.  Much of the fun is in the discovery.  If readers are cast into the middle of an unfolding action, their interest will be captured more readily than if they’re asked to wade through lengthy curriculum vitae that gradually brings them up to the present moment.

Peter Bishop, the Creative Director of the Varuna Writers House says the weakest part of a novel is usually the first one hundred pages.  Inexperienced writers often include extra material to help them gain momentum in writing their story.  This doesn’t necessarily help with the momentum of the story itself.  I’m not saying don’t write it.  If it helps you get moving, by all means, put it in.  But at some point, once the story is running on its own power, let it go.

When I follow this advice, I cut thousands of leaden words.

The movement of an iceberg

Hemingway once said:  “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one/ninth of it being above water.”

I ponder this.   For me, much of the fun of writing a novel lies in getting to know my characters.  I let them talk, ramble, babble, dream incoherently, waste time, flirt with the wrong people, take up hobbies.  Much of this goes nowhere.  But sometimes it reveals interesting directions.

For example, I’m working on something now that’s not intended to be a love story.  I think of it as my ‘political’ work.  In it, I want to be as far away from issues of domesticity as possible.  I particularly don’t want to write about sex and love.

Well.  That prohibition is all my characters need to sneak around.  Suddenly, sexual tension is all over the place.  Everybody desires everybody else.

I’ve given in.  I find myself writing passages in which characters flirt with each other, get close to consummation, but pull back at the last moment when they realise that’s not what they want after all.  I have no idea where any of this will lead, but my experience tells me it won’t hurt the story.  It might distil down to one small sentence, the merest shrug of a shoulder or a knowing curl of the lip, something tiny and veering-towards-insignificant to indicate to the reader that my characters are living, breathing individuals.

A friend of mine, speaking about his research students, points out that there tends to be two kinds: the ones who adds to the research problem, whose thesis gets bigger and bigger as they go along, and the ones who subtract, who end up with a question and, in many cases, an answer that is nothing more than a statement the obvious.  I’m of the first type.  When I write, I throw in everything.  When the time is right, I axe it.  But the spirit of all that work is never gone.

It becomes part of the eight/ninths that is under water.

Splitting the atom

I have 7,000 words still to cut.

My agent suggests I skeletonise the manuscript, track it scene by scene in a table in order to get a different view of pacing and motivation.  This proves to be a fascinating task.  For each scene, I outline the point of view, how the plot is advanced, the tone, motivation, and word count.  What presents itself is really interesting.

For example, with minor shifts, sets of scenes seem to group together naturally.  For the first time, chapters—real chapters—emerge.  Only now do I realise that what I’ve had in place before this was merely a string of scenes more or less arbitrarily clumped together, kind of like the way empires divide up conquered lands, drawing lines on maps without regard to languages, customs, and age-old hostilities.  As the world has seen, such artificial boundaries create huge problems down the line.

For me, caught up in the grinding machinery of producing a long manuscript, pacing seems less crucial than getting the characters right.  I find that like young children, plotlines demand constant attention so as not to wander off, and one eye at least must also be kept on themes.  In the process, pacing gets no attention except a prayer every now and then that it please, please look after itself.  And it does.  It’s there—buried sometimes—but actually present throughout.  Skeletonising the narrative allows me to see the natural flow of the story.

It also helps me to see the brickwork.  Because I’ve done a word count of each scene, the longer ones really stand out.  Looking more deeply, I realise that these are scenes that include detailed back story and a tremendous amount of psychoanalysis.  As discussed above, the back story is a crucial part of developing the narrative.  Much of it is a way for the writer to orient himself, to gain momentum, to create a different world for the characters to inhabit and for the reader to visit.  And psychoanalysis really helps to flesh out, strengthen and test the characters’ motivations.    However, neither belongs in later drafts.  The back story is for you, the writer, not for the reader.  Ditto the psychoanalysis.

Go ahead and explain what’s going on in the heads of your characters.  This will do a lot to make their actions true.  Later on, read the passage without the long digressions.  I bet it’s stronger.

The mark of a really good book

When I’ve cut out all the bad writing I can find, when I’ve pared back to what is essential to the story, there’s still more to do to cut my manuscript by 25,000 words.  I have to look at the good stuff with a critical eye.  This is painful, really painful.  It doesn’t feel any longer like changing out of ill-fitting clothes or getting a dramatic hair cut.  It feels as though I’m parting with a limb.

Lillian Ross, a writer for The New Yorker, once spent two days in 1949 with Ernest Hemingway on his way from Havana to Europe.  Her piece about the episode is one I admire for its breathless energy.  You really get a sense of Hemingway the man.  He’s lost his spectacles and must have a new pair made before the ship sails.  He needs a winter coat, and they duck into a shop on Madison Avenue, where his boredom and impatience is beautifully captured.  Ross overhears a phone conversation he has with Marlene Dietrich with whom he always flirted but never became romantically involved.

On the second day, she arrives at his hotel room at eight in the morning.  He greets her with a glass of champagne poured from a bottle already nearly empty.  He’d been up for hours with his muse and wears the flush of having achieved something remarkable.  He speaks excitedly about his latest work and, opening another bottle, tells Ross, “The mark of a really good book, you know, is how much good writing you cut out of it.”


Horace, “Ars Poetica” (translated by Francis)
…To the grand event he speeds his course,
And bears his readers with resistless force
Into the midst of things, while every line
Opens, by just degrees, his whole design.

Ross, Lillian.  ‘Portrait of Hemingway’, The New Yorker.  May 13, 1950.


  1. Love this, Jackie. It does sound painful, and I know that it is painful, by my own much more limited experience! I’d love to have more of those Hemingway moments of achieving ‘something remarkable’, with or without champagne. Thanks for your great blog!

  2. I don’t envy you this task, Adair! But a brilliant post, with some really good advice. Many of my favourite writing quotes are from Hemmingway – a fascinating man. Hope the edit is all done and doesn’t feel too painful any longer…

  3. I’m editing my new novel right now and found the Hemingway quote inspirational! I WILL cut what I know I must, even though it’s so painful.
    Graham Greene was anti exclamation marks, not just adverbs. I try to remember that when I edit, because I seem to have a penchant for the ! ( I’m currently enjoying Steve Toltz’s ‘A Fraction of the Whole’ but can’t imagine what Greene would do with all those !!!)

    • Good luck with your editing. As for those exclamation points, I’ve heard you only have five to use in a lifetime.

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