“Every word is gold,” my author said, “but I suppose you’ll have to shorten it.” Indeed I will: this book manuscript totals 180,000 words, and the trade publisher wants a 40 percent cut. That will be tough.
Editors often need to reduce text. Newspapers, magazines, brochures, textbooks and reference materials have strict word limits. It doesn’t matter how good the writing and the narrative are, they have to fit the guidelines. Usually, a little trimming improves the quality too. Strunk and White cautioned us decades ago in The Elements of Style to delete all unnecessary words, and novelist Stephen King advises us in On Writing to cut everything by at least 10 percent. Condensing is an essential skill for all editors.
To do the heavy cuts, you need three passes. First, read the whole manuscript quickly to absorb the argument and the story, looking for any paragraphs or sections that seem tangential or superfluous. If you find long quotations, reduce them to a key sentence or two and paraphrase the rest succinctly. Deleting those big chunks will be very satisfying!
Second, work through the text sentence by sentence, watching carefully for repetitions and excessive numbers of examples. Remove sentences where you can, but focus in particular on all the words and phrases that really are not needed. You’ll be amazed how many you find, as you replace weak verb/adverb combinations with one strong verb and introduce perfect nouns that don’t need adjectives to explain them. This pass is detailed and labour intensive: your edited pages will glow with red as you track all your suggestions.
Third, create a clean edited version and read through the entire text again. Inevitably after a big reduction, there will be a lot of smoothing to do. You’ll probably have to write some transitional sentences and phrases to cover your cuts. You may find too that in this condensed form, the text requires some reorganization: paragraphs now appear in the wrong order, and sections should be moved around.
Substantially reducing a text draws on many editorial skills and talents. It’s intellectually challenging, obliging us to understand completely what the author is trying to accomplish and to do it in less space. It requires structural work in shaping the revised text into the best possible order and ensuring that it flows well. And it demands all those stylistic tricks we know to make the prose a pleasure to read.
Ideally, the author won’t even notice where you’ve made all the cuts and will marvel that the word count has magically fallen from where it was before. Best of all, you’ll have a broad smile on your face as you realize that, by taking this piece to the gym, you’ve trimmed the excess and transformed it into a taut, streamlined body.
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