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Rosemary Shipton

Shorten It!

Steel Scissors on white background
Ihor Obraztsov © 123RF.com

“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.

~~~

Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: Mentoring.

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About the author

Rosemary Shipton

Rosemary Shipton edits trade, scholarly and art books as well as commission of inquiry reports. From 1990 to 2007 she was the founding academic coordinator of the publishing program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

13 Comments on “Shorten It!”

  • Wilf Popoff

    says:

    Elie Wiesel, who died last month, said: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      How insightful! Thanks for posting it, Wilf.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Yes, “take it to they gym.” I once told a class that cutting was one of the definitions of editing. Several students looked in their dictionaries and assured me this was not the case. Well, the dictionaries just haven’t caught up yet. Brevity is becoming more and more important as the digital world evolves.

    Fashion people use it. They “edit” an outfit by removing superfluous accessories, and voila, the costume looks much better.

    Authors resist having their products cut, of course. One technique I used with government documents was to suggest moving parts to an appendix. Later on, it became apparent that the appendices were not necessary after all.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      Yes, appendices work well for reports and some scholarly books. They can’t be accommodated in most other genres, however. In fiction, if a scene or a character proves superfluous to the particular manuscript you’re working on, you can always suggest that the author move it into the next novel or short story. The same applies to sections or very detailed episodes in nonfiction – they can be transferred into the next article. And so we help authors sculpt the work at hand …

      • Great post, Rosemary.

        I once worked with a memoirist who hired me specifically to cut his manuscript by 50%, because several agents had told him it was a necessary starting point. He found it really hard to follow cuts on an electronic MS, so I made a “manuscript map,” a sort of table, with brief descriptions of all the scenes in his very episodic text, sorted into “Keep,” “Cut,” and “Maybe” columns, with notes on how to rearrange to make the remainder flow, and we went through it together.

        At first, he fiercely resisted every cut—“This episode sets up the whole tone of the chapter!” “That scene is crucial because it informs this other one!” “Readers won’t really understand about my mother unless we include that part!” But once I’d persuaded him to let go of a few, and showed him how we could make the rest work around it, he started to relax a bit, and we got in to some excellent discussions on the “maybe”s. By the end of a long day of hashing through dozens of chapters, we had cut just about what was needed, and he told me—my fave author comment ever—“I actually feel physically lighter, like a burden has been lifted and I can walk more easily, with my shoulders straighter.”

        Yes, a well-trimmed MS is a fine thing.

        • Rosemary Shipton

          says:

          That’s a lovely story, Elizabeth – I hope you will tell me one day that yes, your author did get a publisher for his streamlined memoir. You were certainly the ideal (and patient and creative) editor for him.

        • Anita Jenkins

          says:

          That sounds like the advice on downsizing, decluttering and simple living. We watched the movie “Hello, My Name Is Doris.” The main character, played by Sally Fields, has a therapist who wants her to put her stuff in three piles: Keep, Donate and Toss. She has trouble deciding what to do with a ski that has no mate, rationalizing that a person with only one leg could use it.

    • Anita, that’s a great tip about appendices; I am sure you usually knew the appendix would be unlikely to see the light of day, but I can see how helpful it must have been to let the author discover that.

      I’ve sometimes created, for my own use when doing structural editing and sometimes to share with an author, a “parking lot” file, in which I put sections of text that I had reason to remove from somewhere but am not sure should be cut. Usually most of what’s “parked” ends up left behind, but it *is* reassuring to me, during that messy middle part of the edit when I can’t make out the final shape yet, that the material is there where I can easily retrieve it if it helps. And sometimes I do rescue a bit.

      I should probably send this file to authors with the final MS, pointing out they can, as Rosemary points out, use the material in another book.

  • amandachen

    says:

    >Strunk and White cautioned us decades ago in The Elements of Style to delete all unnecessary words

    Well, Strunk wrote that a century ago.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      I can see you’re really into fact checking, Amanda, but would you agree that, in a general little piece like this one where precise dates don’t matter, “decades ago” is perfectly fine? In any case, William Strunk privately published the text for his students at Cornell sometime before E.B. White arrived in his class in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1959 that Macmillan published the first commercial edition. So the story is complicated.

      • amandachen

        says:

        > but it wasn’t until 1959 that Macmillan published the first commercial edition

        You’re forgetting the Harcourt edition of Strunk.

  • Rosemary, thanks for sharing your editing steps—very helpful.
    Whenever I’m struggling with a text, at some point I’ll realize I should simply cut the offending passage—problem solved!

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      It’s amazing the difference a little – or a lot of – tightening can make. A bloated, boring text suddenly emerges as streamlined and interesting – one everybody enjoys. It sounds as though your business is really taking off now, Michelle – and that’s great.

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