Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Journey Through Massive Edits In Ten Easy Steps

By Paul Welch

JH: I'm excited about today's post. A few months ago, Paul Welch wrote me to say thanks for some of my revision posts. He had a huge novel to cut down and my advice helped a lot (which totally made my day). We got to chatting and he told me his amazing story and what he did to turn a massive novel into something he could submit. I was so inspired by his tale, I asked him to guest post and share it with you guys.

Paul is an award-winning professional actor, writer and voice, speech and text specialist living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is currently seeking representation for his first epic fantasy, IN THE SHADOWS OF THE DAWN. It is the first in a proposed trilogy. Ironically, he had to cut over 700 words from this blog post.

This story is for everyone who says they can't cut that novel. It can be done, and Paul is proof of that.

Take it away Paul...

In April, 2011, I started editing the 130,000-word epic fantasy novel I had written over the course of a year. I started by re-reading the book. I tweaked words, added/removed commas and fixed hiccups. I even enlisted my mother. She wasn’t a fantasy reader, but I figured another set of eyes could help.

We took the book through 4 drafts, but the word count stayed the same. I thought it was ready, so I gave it to friends to read. They all said the same thing: “Way too much information and not enough action right off the top.”


“They don’t understand my work!” I raged. “It’s the style! It can’t have action right off the top!”

I finally settled down, took another look, and added 50,000 words. It now opened with action! And at 198,000 words, it needed another four more drafts. Once done, we couldn’t possibly make it any better.

It was ready to be published.

I wrote a 600-word query letter and sent it to the top agents who represented my favorite authors. Well, six of them, at least. I figured I’d want to be represented by the people involved in the books I loved, so why not?

And so I waited for a week and a half, and killed time by learning about the submission process.

What did I learn? Well, apparently my query was unconventional. Okay. Fixable. I re-wrote it and sent it out to another 20 agents to cast the net wider. Still nothing.

And then I got my first response. The agent was no longer accepting unsolicited queries. (Who knew? Anyone who has done their research, that’s who.) BUT, she passed my query to another agent and he requested the first three chapters. My first response was a request for a partial! So I sent off my chapters...

…and waited patiently for like, a whole week. Nothing. So I killed more time by learning about the business. Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned:

Lesson One: Think in terms of obstacles.
I want to be published, and apparently 198,000 words is one of the biggest obstacles an author can face. Okay. Fixable. But how? Divide it into two stories, of course. But could it work as two separate books? How on Earth was I going to do this?

And then the agent got back to me. He enjoyed the partial and wanted more!


Lesson Two: Look at the scope.
“Does it really take 1.4 million words over five books to tell this tale?” he asked. “Can it be told as a trilogy of 500,000 words?” He even included an apology that he couldn’t be more helpful, but it was fantastic. I finally had a goal – a target I could hit. But how?

Lesson Three: Research. Enter Janice Hardy’s website. I read articles and had “Ah-HAH” moments. Suddenly, the task of massively cutting words became plausible. In particular, her article on “Cutting Down Your Novel” was particularly useful. I knew I could do it.

Lesson Four: Do the work.
As motivation, I tracked the cuts per chapter and kept a tally. At 39 chapters, cutting 1400 words/chapter would keep me on track.

Well, I cut 188 words from the first chapter, 238 from the second… and 53 from the third. This wasn’t a good start. I re-read the articles and persevered. Soon, I was cutting 1000 words, then 1300, 2132! I gave my book two more passes and managed to reduce it from 198,302 to 157,783 words. Not too shabby, but I had a ways to go.

Lesson Five: Identify problem words. These are repetitive words that don’t add value. This was a chore. When you’re using the “find” function to search 1792 instances of “that,” you begin to lose the English language. But it allowed me to look at sentences independently. Rather than tied to the story, they were mere snippets of the tale. Were successful on their own, or could they be improved? 100% of the time, they could.

Words like up, down, away, back, noticed… turns out they can be problematic. Try it in your own work. Search for “down.” For instance: “She sat down on the floor.” Does the sentence work without it? “She sat on the floor.” It does! So get rid of it.

Lesson Six: Develop your own list of problems to investigate. One of my biggest challenges was a ‘construction’ issue. I had too many instances of: “…blah blah blah, for blah blah blah.” Sometimes the sentence needed to be re-written, sometimes it was OK. Using it now and again is style. Using it 3 times on every page is… well, it’s not so good.

I had also collected my own list of problem words to tackle, and in the end I reduced the manuscript to 152,708 words. This was well below the 166k target I was given, but I knew I still wasn’t done.

Lesson Seven: Review the book with special focus. Challenge the story every step of the way. “Does this further the plot? Does this add to the story? Is it relevant to this story? Is that character necessary, or can her dialogue be given someone who furthers the plot? Is this an info-dump?” And so on. This takes time, but it forces you to be diligent with your work. Get into arguments with yourself. Just make sure the right side wins, and that side is always the STORY – not your ego.

Lesson Eight: Simplification. Fixing the flow and simplifying the story is important, and nothing helps identify flow issues better than reading out loud. When you read a story, you’re choosing to tell it to yourself. If you stumble, others will stumble, too. And since publication is my goal, all obstacles must be annihilated. Coherency and flow can be major obstacles… so why not make the story shine?

Lesson Nine: Get feedback and continue to edit. I sent the book to beta readers for further comments, incorporated them, and then the last stage was a hard-copy edit. I printed the book and, highlighter in hand, identified additional problems that many eyes – my own included – had failed to see. It was invaluable, and – like reading out loud – it has now become a permanent part of my editing process.

Since the agent was open for me to re-submit, I drafted a new query. It’s frustrating, I know. I’m still tweaking mine. But, I have to believe that eventually, if I keep plugging away at it – and keep coming back to it with new eyes – I’ll figure it out.

Start with Janice’s “Who/What/When/Where/Why/How” formula. Work it until it hurts. Then simplify by thinking about “Voice, Setting, Conflict.” The pieces should come together nicely.

I submitted my new query, letting the agent know his suggestions were extremely helpful, and within fifteen minutes I got an e-mail back. He was thrilled I had cut 55,000 words and asked for the first 100 pages. Success!

He could still say the project isn’t right for him and give it a pass, but my book is stronger as a result. In hindsight, I can’t believe I ever thought it was ready for the next level. That said, everything happens for a reason, and this journey has been an incredible one.

Lesson Ten: Trust in yourself and persevere. If you’re faced with the challenge of cutting your book, my journey is proof that it’s possible. Don’t be precious. Identify your goal (90-120k words for fantasy, even though mine is 142k), and figure out the cuts per chapter (or per page) to reach it. If it takes four more passes, then so be it. Identify your problem words. Add them to Janice’s list. Use the “find” function, look for them as they appear in your story, and for the love of ketchup, fix them!

And finally, persevere. While this world has been in my brain for 15 years, it took two years of writing and editing to get to this stage. I know that once I have representation, there will be even more editing to do.

But editing is possible and it’s worth it. It’s what really makes a story shine.


  1. Great post. I used a similar approach to cut 20,000 words from my MG fantasy to bring it down to an acceptable 69,000 words. Like you, it took a number of drafts to get it to the right word count. And it tightened the story.

    Janice's list of redundant words helped a lot and I use it often.

  2. Thanks Paul and Janice for your great advice. I am in the midst of a long edit. About an hour a day (in between family and work) I go through my WIP and fix, tweak and cut.

    I think I'm finally getting the feel for the "cut" part.

    It really helps to have a file to dump the stuff I'm cutting so that its not lost forever. It eases the pain.

    Sometimes, I can't quite do that, even. So I just put a cross-out line through it and let it sit and marinate. Most times when I go through and hit those sentences again, I see that my gut feeling was right. It DOES need to go.

    Thanks Janice for all your advice, and thank you Paul for your step by step example of how to put this advice into play. It give me (and my monster manuscript) hope.

  3. Excellent post and just what I needed to read right now! Although I tend to have the opposite problem. I streamline to the point of eliminating important stuff. It all goes back to a high school English teacher who said I should practice 'brevity.' Wise but I think I take it to the extreme at time.
    Regardless, writing is all about perseverance.

    Good luck Paul, I hope to read your published novel one day soon!

  4. When I saw your novel started at 130,000 words, I jumped. The third draft of mine (also in the fantasy genre) was the exact same word count! All that world-building definitely fills things up quickly.

    After getting rid of a lot of those "that"s as well as "nodded" and "looked" and unnecessary dialogue tags, and even more importantly, strings of dialogue that didn't move the story along, I'm now down to 94,000. Thanks for the post! Great advice.

  5. Congratulations, Paul. I like the point about reviewing with special focus. I think that's the hardest part.

  6. Great points! I have a long list of my problem words :/

  7. Glad you enjoyed the post, folks!

    It has been quite the journey. The NY literary agent mentioned in the blog is still reading the partial of the manuscript. A second agent requested a partial and the synopsis, but decided to give it a pass. And just this past week another agent expressed interest.. but suggested I try to cut from its current 140,000 words (I reduced it by another 2,000 since the blog was written) down to 120k or 110k, as 140k is "too long for a debut novel." It puts me into an interesting position, as she doesn't know the history and how much has been cut to date.

    Hopefully the post will help encourage others when they're faced with similar challenges. As for me... well, I'm going to wait to hear from the agent that's reading the partial and go from there. I might have to revisit the MS once more and make some tricky decisions.


  8. Awesome points. I'm currently working on cutting down my novel and getting it to read smoother, too.


  9. This is top-quality advice. A lot of important things that aren't stressed enough. Thanks!

  10. Great post!! I faced this when I first started out, I had a similar word count, now I regularly bring it into the right range. Knowledge=success.