Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 11: Trimming

Let’s talk “trimming.” Why do it? Well… because your manuscript is longer than it needs to be. Yes, we’re talking to you. AND you. And you, too. None of you are exempt! (Well… maybe YOU are, but you can’t be allowed to believe it.)

So… what do you trim? We’ve covered “Killing Your Darlings” way back in Season One Episode Three, so while those are certainly on the list of things to cut, we’re going to focus on tightening your prose and reducing word-count without changing the story. So that’s what we cover in a brisk, 15-minute ‘cast whose synopsis is at least fifty words longer than it needs to be. Maybe fifty-two.


30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 11: Trimming”

  1. Whoa, this is up really early. I was expecting a late episode, what with most of the crew in Canada right now.

  2. I’m an underwriter of a sort. Not that I don’t trim. Most of the fat comes in overlong sentences laden with passive voice. Conditionals are also a big thing. Let the subject do its thing, no maybes, should, could or would.

    Rarely have I looked at something and said, “This doesn’t work.” Even then on my first edit of my first project it went down from 55,000 to 38,000 before I added several missing scenes. So even an underwriter like myself has to cut and trim before the edit is done.

  3. This is a luxury that you published authors with your deadlines may not have, but I find the best thing I can do for any part of revision, not just trimming, is put it away. I like to let things sit for at least a month. Then when I come back it’s much easier to spot what works, what doesn’t, what sentences aren’t clear, what sentences are too long.

    You can never be entirely objective about your own work, but letting it sit for a while helps bring you closer.

  4. It scared me when the first thing my editor told me to do was to trim 50 pages out of 320. I didn’t think it could be done. It blew me away when I took out 40 pages without breaking a sweat just by “cutting out the fat.” The other thing that surprised me was how much more sense my sentences made.

    I’m doing another edit now, thinking I had already trimmed out all the fat and, surprise, I’m still finding more. Perhaps my manuscript isn’t getting enough exercise.

  5. My writing tends to get wordy. It may even ramble. Trimming is probably the one thing I have the most experience with because every time I look at something I just wrote, I know I took too long to say it. I actually used to resist trimming because my school essays had to be a specific length. Since starting college though, I have more teachers who would rather read an essay that’s the appropriate length than one fattened up to fit their requirements (or one that’s over-trimmed). Anyway, I probably could have said this in half as many words. Lol.

  6. Well, I don’t generally talk about my writing, because: I haven’t done any real (fiction) writing in ages, and most of it wouldn’t really be very relevant anyway – for example I don’t actually have a plot.

    My writing style is/was very rambling – oddly, perhaps, this demands absolute iron control, else rambling will deteriorate into mere babbling. I need the exact words exactly in the right place to convey exactly what I want to say – even if that something is nonsense. It is essential. I will trim sentences I’m not happy with endlessly, until I like them – it may well be only a word here or there. When I have succeeded, however, nothing on earth will make me change it again.

    But then, I never really expected to have – what I affectionately call – my worst-seller published, even if I actually managed to finish it.

    I always used to say that:

    a) I would never finish it
    b) if I did, it would never be published
    c) if it was published, no one would ever read it

    Being the cheerful soul I am (no, really!), I hate disappointment, and I flatter myself I’ve covered all contingencies. :)

    So, you can see what I meant – instead of rambling, I’ve descended into babbling, and yet – believe it or not – I have actually trimmed this post (there was one word in particular that I really wanted, which was annoyingly eluding me – but I caught it at last.) One of the reasons I haven’t written anything for some while, is that I am constantly tired, and my judgement has deserted me.

    Ah, well… (shrugs shoulders despondently)

  7. My nitpicking extends to italics – case in point: “in the right place to convey” should not have been italicized – now I’m cross. (sulks)

    And there was something else…

  8. I am one of those that needs to add, not subtract. No, really. Ask my writer’s group.

    I’m also an ESL teacher, so if you guys want to fly me out to UT to explain why passive voice doesn’t work in fiction… :)

    In a nutshell, beyond word count issues, the passive voice is used in situations in which the actor or instigator is unknown or unimportant. (For example, if you’re reporting a crime where the perp is unknown, or if you’re reporting the results of a scientific experiment in which the whole point is that the same results could be replicated no matter who performed the tests.) This is NOT the situation in writing where the purpose is to entertain. 99 times out of 100, you want to show a character doing something, which, by definition, is active. There are also stylistic/ flow considerations, but that’s the nitty-gritty.

  9. I blame my wordiness on high school, where teachers told us to write so many pages or words in our reports. I became an expert at spreading as little information over as much space as possible.

    I should point out, it wasn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault, I’m just lazy.

  10. Something I’ve also found useful is using the wordle word balloons tool. Plug in the novel and see what words are the biggest. Then decide if those words need that much repetition and search for them in the document and adjust.


  11. While working on my novel, I find myself concerned with trimming dialogue. Varying the dialogue and (in my mind) making it more diverse and realistic, sometimes leaves me questioning this choice.

    Each character speaks differently. One remains terse, another tends to ramble, while one might maintain a particular form of speech, like Sazed, throughout Mistborn.

    Though a rambling character will always remain on topic, is it a bad idea to incorporate such a character trait, with the fear it’ll require being cut down?

    Few things are as important to me as believable characters. Distinct personalities would (IMHO) require some space for establishment and display through the story.

    Any suggestions? Many thanks,


  12. First Draft of my comment:

    This episode reminds me of that scene at the beginning of A River Runs Through It where the boy can’t go fishing until he finishes his writing assignment, and every time he turns his writing assignment in to his father, his father says, “Good. Do it again, but half as long.” He does this until the assignment is only about half a page long and then the father finally lets the boy go fishing.
    I am rewriting a book right now, and I am pleased to say that some chapters have been shortened, but most of them turn out to be the same length as they were before, and a few are even longer. When this happens, I tell myself that once I have an editor I can worry about trimming. Is this wrong?

    Second Draft of my comment:

    This podcast reminded me of the first scene in A River Runs Through It where the son has to keep making his writing assignment shorter.
    I am rewriting a book right now, and I’m wondering if I should be worried about trimming now, or if I should wait until I get an editor.

    Third Draft of my comment:

    This podcast reminds me of the writing scene at the beginning of A River Runs Through It.
    Should I trim now, or after I get an editor?

    Great Podcast!

  13. Final draft of comment: Now.


    Seems like the general feeling, at least from the agent/edtior blogs I’ve been reading, is that you should have it trimmed and spotless -before- you submit it to an editor.

  14. Loved the “trimming” podcast. How about putting out a “padding” episode now? :-) I tend to be too terse. I’m not descriptive enough and my pacing is usually way out of control. I do fine on the major plot events but tend to gloss over the “boring” stuff and summarize conversations rather than playing them out. It drives my alpha readers crazy but I can’t seem to break the habits.

  15. I remember this issue I had with not being able to move forward until I felt like “I nailed it” just right, and that would usually mean I’d write it out, look it over, read it back to myself, edit/trim and finalize it before moving on.

    That really wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Over the course of a few years I realized that knowing when to trim is as critical as the act of trimming the work itself.

    – Jack

  16. Berin,

    Were there a couple of things that made up the bulk of that fat? I’m interested to hear the types of things you changed in more detail.

  17. Final draft of comment: Now.


    BTW, when Howard talked about knowing he was off track because he had to draw the character’s head at the bottom I realized his four panel form works much like formed poetry–sonnets, haiku, limericks, sestinas. It has a very small, tightly controlled structure that holds only so many words.

    Of course, in 20 years this means the next genre to be studied in lit classes will be the four panel comic. Schlock will be anthologized and will probably yield some awful revelation about Howard’s secret agenda with a Marxist reading.

  18. In terms of trimming, I keep intending to pick up Ken Rand’s book “The 10% Solution.” Several writers have recommended it. Unfortunately, the link about the book on the SFWA site is down with their switchover. Just the few hints on that page were very helpful, but I’ve not picked up the book yet. I was sad to read a while back that Ken Rand passed away this year.

    Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/10%25-Solution-Ken-Rand/dp/0966818407

  19. If lit classes are studying [i]Schlock Mercenary[/i] that will be a huge ego boost for me. Also, I will weep for humanity, not to mention the Humanities.

  20. A follow-up comment on the “edit now” or “wait for an editor” discussion. Part of the publishing process around a novel is to determine what the cost/profit ratio is to publishing the book. If an editor or the marketing team have two novels in hand and can only publish one, and one requires more work to prep for publication, they’ll likely pick the more cost effective one to publish. It also seems that editors now spend less time editing, and spend more time shepherding novels through the publishing process. That puts the ball back in the author’s court.

    Similarly, for the short story market, the editors won’t even blink to reject the story because they don’t have time to help you clean it up.

  21. Howard, people are already studying comics and other pop culture thingummies in universities. It’s only a matter of time…


  22. I reported the bad link to the SFWA web site, and Mary Robinette Kowal herself responded! They fixed the link to the Ken Rand page. It has a sample of the trimming topics covered by his book. Just the few things on the list were helpful to me. I look forward to reading the book. Enjoy!


  23. @Sam: That’s not padding, that’s adding flavour. ;) Best way to get good at that is to write conversations as they’re interpreted by different characters, ala Brandon’s famous “four people walk through a town. Describe it differently from each of their viewpoints.” prompt.

  24. I’m an underwriter of a sort. Not that I don’t trim. Most of the fat comes in overlong sentences laden with passive voice. Conditionals are also a big thing. Let the subject do its thing, no maybes, should, could or would.

    Rarely have I looked at something and said, “This doesn’t work.” Even then on my first edit of my first project it went down from 55,000 to 38,000 before I added several missing scenes. So even an underwriter like myself has to cut and trim before the edit is done.

  25. Thanks, helped a lot for the Academic Decathlon speech I’m writing right now. Meeting Brandon features heavily in it!

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