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Editing: What's Not The Story?

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This is from Joe Bunting, and is timely as I'm editing my novel.



"When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."
—Editor John Gould to Stephen King


Your first draft was a discovery draft, an exploration. You threw all your ideas onto the page, hoping some would stick.


If you’re a pantser, you surprised yourself with unplanned twists and turns throughout the writing process, the characters telling you the story as much as you were telling it to them. Even if you planned your story out in full before you began, there were new, unexpected discoveries along the way.


Some of those ideas were brilliant additions to your story. Others were useful in the moment because they helped you write your way to "The End." But they don’t really contribute to what your story is becoming.


One of the most difficult tasks writers face in the editing process is cutting. It hurts to remove words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire scenes, characters, or subplots. You spent so much time and effort creating those ideas in the first place! Of course you want to find a way to make them work.


But in order to make your story the best it can be, you must be ruthless in removing the pieces that no longer fit. Cut them out, paste them in a new document, and save them as a bank of words and ideas you can always look back on.


In the moment, it will hurt. But your story will be better for it. And the ideas you develop as you cut away what doesn’t fit will be so great an improvement, you won’t miss those old words at all.


Practice: As you edit today’s scenes, ask yourself, what’s not the story? Think about this question on every level:


What words don’t fit?
What sentences don’t fit?
What paragraphs are unnecessary?
What scenes aren’t helpful?
What characters don’t add to the story?What plot developments don’t contribute?


Don’t worry — your editing success today is not measured in how much you can cut away. But keep these questions in mind as you edit. And if you come across something that doesn’t fit, be bold and brave in removing it.



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A piece of advice I was given years ago was - if you take something out and it doesn't affect the story/plot - leave it out.

I have found this helpful in the past.


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What if those superfluous characters have agents? They clammer for a bigger role. Make me imporant! Make me count! Integrate me into the main action! And residuals! Don't forget the residuals!


So hard to cut those characters. I mean, if I cut them, I'll have to write a whole new book just for them! It never ends...



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On 3/27/2020 at 5:31 PM, paulchernoch said:

Make me important! Make me count! 

You get two pages in the character file.  If you mark your availability for "villain, " the line is shorter. "Comic relief" is an overcrowded specialty in my files.

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Posted (edited)

Thank you so much!  I needed to hear this. 


My thoughts tend to go all over the place when writing, and I focus so much on the little details that I lose my focus on the main story.  Sometimes cutting out parts of a draft feels like cutting off a limb, but it's got to be done.


It's also great to see that I'm not alone with this feeling.

Edited by Blue Minnow
Changed the word 'plot' to 'story'.

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