Knowing When to Cut

One of my former creative writing professors was an avid fan of the cutting draft. He would write an entire novel and then cut the thing down to 800 words—or less—and begin to build again.

I adored him, but always secretly thought he was a bit of a masochist. I can’t imagine sitting down after months of writing and just crossing out page after page of text until all that remains is less than a scene….craziness!

I’ve long suffered from the ailment of being way too attached to my writing though, so knowing when to cut something has always been a bit of a challenge for me. My novels and stories (and back in the day, my term papers) always ended up longer than the first draft. I had a hard time cutting things.

But the cliché goes: kill your darlings; and though it’s a cliché, there’s a good lesson hidden in the agony of the advice. In theory, if it’s something you are truly attached to, then the experts warn that you should get rid of it. I don’t operate like this as an editor. Honestly, I don’t set out to do a cutting draft. My cuts happen organically as I edit and shape the story after the conclusion of the first draft. Have I cut things that I’ve loved? Yes. Have I reworked to keep things I love? Yes again.


Language is my master in my writing and I won’t cut a pretty phrase. I’ll do everything I can to salvage it. In The Green Lady, it was the following line that I salvaged from the first draft – actually this line followed me all the way from the original short story through to the final product. “Unlike the venerable Mr. Sherlock Holmes in the serials he read weekly, John could feel himself sinking, his hero’s heart besotted and out of practice, left to rust and ruminate in its sheath for too many years.” It was just TOO good to delete. So I made sure it fit in the final draft.

Perhaps this means I’m not the best person to be giving advice on this. Or, perhaps it does. Because I am human and therefore we can relate.

As I was working on a later version of The Green Lady (BTW, I don’t recommend trying to turn a short story into a novel. It’s REALLY hard!), it became apparent that I needed to choose a new starting point because it took 90 pages to get to the murder. WAY too long! This ended up changing the story quite a bit because some of my already minor characters dropped off the map almost entirely and the reader was no longer privy to their relationship with the main characters. In the end, I made it work.

Right now I’m working on editing Withered World and have recently decided that I hate the entire first 20,000 words of the story. This is the section of the story told from two characters’ perspectives and takes place 50 years before the second part. The second section of the story is significantly longer and could likely stand alone. Honestly, I am seriously considering deleting it and replacing it with what would be considered a lengthy prologue (though not lengthy at all) – a grand suggestion from my BFF writing buddy, author  J.R. Boles as I complained about how much I hated that first section. Stories are best when you begin in medias res (in the middle of things for you non-Latin speakers). Thus, I think it’s best if the first section drops off and the reader can begin at the pivotal life-changing moment for the main character of section two. I haven’t actually pulled the trigger yet, but I’m well on the path to convincing myself that this is required for story success.

Making cuts to your story is a necessary part of the creation process, even if it is a really painful one. In the end, if what you’re thinking of cutting doesn’t help to advance the story, then letting it go is probably the right decision. Fight through the pain. I’m right there with you!