How to Cut Your Manuscript by 20%… and Love It.


A prospective agent, someone you pitched at a writing conference, advises you to cut 20% of your manuscript.  Non-negotiable.  Which frankly scares the hell out of you because you’ve fallen in love with each and every word you’ve written.


Here’s how to do it.  And by the way… she’s right, you do need to cut your manuscript down to fighting weight before you can sell it.


Allow me to build a base for this approach before I lay in on you.  I use a “development model” to teach storytelling, and I also use it to write my own stuff.  It’s based on a perspective that says there are six primary skill sets, or competencies, that comprise the whole of what a writer must understand and execute in order to write a successful novel.


And by successful, I mean publishable.  A novel can be competently written and still not get published, that’s the downside of this business, we can’t predict whims and tastes and utter bad luck.  That said, though, it’s virtually impossible to publish a novel without all six of these buckets of skills being unarguably solid.


In fact, to break into the business, at least two or three of them have to be extraordinarily excellent.  Only published, brand-name authors get away with mediocrity these days.  We have to be better than they are.


The Importance of the Six Core Competencies


There is nothing else in the creative equation other than these six core competencies.  Virtually anything you can think of that a writer needs to do to a story resides clearly in one of these buckets.  Sometimes it can seem to reside in more than one, but when you break it down it centers in one, and one only.


It’s like a tennis player who must learn to serve, return serve, hit a forehand, hit a backhand, volley, hit an overhead, defend wide shots, hit topspin, hit a slice, learn strategy and attain a level of conditioning.  Separate skills all.  They combine to make the complete tennis player.  Any one of them renders the player vulnerable to defeat, at least at the professional level (you’ll do fine with only a few at the local club).  In our case, since we’re all intending to turn pro, to a rejection slip.


And even if a player nails them all, they still may not succeed as a pro, since others may do some or all of this even better.  The best you can do is, well, your best.  This is the “talent” part of the equation, and that can’t be taught.  It must be evolved to attain its maximum potential. 


That’s why tennis is a sport, and writing is an art.  Part of the process remains inexplicable.


The six core competencies of successful storytelling are:





         story structure

         scene writing

         writing voice


Each one is a separate workshop, its own how-to book, a unique pursuit on the part of the writer.


The issue of cutting down your manuscript could conceivably reside with four of the six.  Concept and theme are safe, they usually aren’t subject to “fat.”  But the others are.


For most newer writers, though, the problem of fat resides in only one of them: scene construction.


The two tools you’ll use for this process.


There are two major guidelines (they’re in my 101 Tips ebook) that you should master and apply here.  And they are critical. 


These two things are the key to your process of cutting your manuscript by 20% or more.  The first is the most important rule of all when it comes to writing scenes .  It’s the magic pill of narrative fiction.  The second is a rule of thumb, and is therefore subject to an artistic call on the part of the writer.  You can’t do the second technique until you completely understand the first.


1.     Your scenes need to be mission-driven.


Every scene in your story needs to be written in context to a purpose.  A mission. 


That mission should not be, as a rule, to characterize.  To simply show us a character engaged in action and interaction, without anything substantive occurring in relation to the plot. 


By mission-driven, I mean the delivery of some piece of information – action, story points delivered within dialogue, revelation, ideas, the dawning of understanding, something found, something lost, the unexpected, a twist, etc. – that drives the story forward along its spine.  Something happens in the scene. 


At the end of the scene, the story is deeper and faster than when the scene began… all because of the new information it delivers.


There should be only one mission per scene.  A single piece of salient, important and useful information delivered to the reader (it can be delivered to the character, as well – or not – because the reader sees everything that happens, even when the character does not).   


2.     You need to enter your scenes at the last possible moment.


You can’t possibly do this unless you understand and accept rule #1.


But once you do understand mission-driven scene writing, once you know what the scene’s purpose is, what specific piece of the puzzle or groundwork it is delivering, then you can and should build your scene around it.   You drive toward it at the expense of fat.


This allows you to be creative and dramatic with the one-act play of your scene, without biding time or focusing on characterization for characterization’s sake.


Doesn’t mean the scene will always be short and succinct.  But it is the only way to make it short and succinct, if that’s what it needs to be.


I challenge you to test this.  Read a novel or watch a movie, and see how each scene is comprised (there will be exceptions… don’t be seduced by them) of two things: a single piece of plot-critical information – which may not seem remotely critical at the time, which is the case with foreshadowing scenes, for example – and the continuing journey of characterization.


Rarely is a scene just characterization.  If it is, it isn’t a good scene at all, and readers will tolerate very few of them.


Agents and editors, even less.


Next post: Part 2 of How to Cut Your Manuscript by 20% or More.


Photo credit: Pictfactory


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

11 Responses to How to Cut Your Manuscript by 20%… and Love It.

  1. I challenge you to test this. Read a novel or watch a movie, and see how each scene is comprised (there will be exceptions… don’t be seduced by them) of two things: a single piece of plot-critical information – which may not seem remotely critical at the time, which is the case with foreshadowing scenes, for example – and the continuing journey of characterization.

    As I’ve said before, you’re a very bad man! I bought (bargain basement) a James Patterson and a Nora Roberts for my daughter and I to test your theories on and scribble all over. We plan to count percentiles, analyse, plot and study for fun (yes, we are a weird family!) We also watched a film based on a teen novel to see how it pans out. Even if we neither of us gets published, you’ve brought something special to our sometimes hormone-fraught relationship!

  2. Larry,
    In a previous post you declared that once a person understands the story elements, every time they watch a movie, show, read a book, etc. it would be obvious.

    Annoyingly, you were right. Every movie I’ve watched since reading that I’ve noticed each plot point and mid-point.

    Thanks a lot. No, really. Thanks for the writing help. I know it will greatly improve my writing.

  3. Great piece again Larry.
    But cutting my ms fat isn’t really a problem for me.
    It’s the reverse. It seems that all my stories are summaries and I get stuck with that.
    How about writing about this problem?

  4. Debbie Burke

    Larry, a dandy post! A new writer I’m working with is compelled to describe every exotic vacation destination and every extreme sport he’s ever experienced in his novel. Unfortunately, most do not have the remotest connection to his story. I have to convince him, using your blog, that while his travelogues might make great travel magazine articles, they don’t belong in his novel. Thanks for your help!

  5. Paul Chernoch

    The method you describe is not the only way to cut down a MS. I spent months tightening phrasing, removing unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and equivocations and useless phrases, tautologies and statements that the reader could easily infer. I deleted many extraneous details, places I repeated myself, etc. I was able to trim by about 15% overall. My sentences and paragraphs were leaner and more precise, but my plot was not. My sagging middle was fifty pages shorter – but still sagging. The exercise was worthwhile, but I still need to do what you recommend.

    I do have one objection, however. My early scenes generally have a single point, but as my story progresses scenes start to do double and triple duty. It seems to me that the number of points that a scene makes should match the pace of the story, with the fast paced scenes having a larger number of revelations.

  6. Janice & Rebecca — yep, you’ll never view a film or read a book the same way again. Sort of like a doctor never feels about a check up again the way she did before med school. It’s pretty cool, actually.

    Debbie — glad this helped! If he resists, just ask him if he really wants to publish or not. It’s that cut and dried.

    Paul — you’re absolutely right, there is another common way to cut (believe I mentioned there are two arenas…): writing voice. Not always easy to trim what we’ve written right after we’ve done so, but later, sometimes the fat just drips off our sentences, begging to be cut.

    On the other issue… there’s always exceptions, you — the artist — get to make the creative call. But as a general rule, and a safe bet, one mission per scene makes for swift pacing and clear reading. If you can make it work another way, hey, go for it. Hope your agent or editor agree. There are many ways to skin this literary cat.

  7. Hi Larry,

    I’ve heard this “cut down your manuscript,” stuff before. But, now that you’re saying it, I guess I have to suck it up and do it.

    Humpf. (ha) Great stuff, as always…

  8. Great post, Larry – exactly what I’ve been explaining to people for years about honing scenes. Poch, what you basically need to do is learn to show, not tell; immerse yourself in a scene as if it was happening to you and you were showing us what you are experiencing. So rather than say ‘I was impressed when he played the guitar’, say ‘I never realised a man with such stubby fingers could make a sound so graceful, so full of expression…’ blah blah – okay it’s not Shakespeare but can you see the first example is a generalisation and the other is specific and vivid? Larry will probably tell you a lot more.
    Finally, back to the original topic – I find the key to cutting is to make sure you know what each scene’s purpose is before you edit – so do a top-down summary before you plunge in with the delete key. You’ll find some scenes are effectively duplicates of others, some should be expanded etc.

  9. Roz — wow, are we ever on the same page. Thanks for your contribution here. Show don’t tell… but don’t show too much if it doesn’t align with the mission of the scene itself. Great scenes are mission-driven. Whatever isn’t mission-driven or at least mission-critical is the stuff we should consider cutting. Good stuff!

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