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.
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?