In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King suggests that any writer approaching his work at the second draft level try to trim the original down by at least 10%. It’s good advice–actually very good–but it’s harder to do than it seems at first blush. Ideally, for example, if you start out with a story that has 4,000 words in the first draft, then your second draft should have around 3,600 words. Most of my experience, unfortunately, has been to the contrary. I’ll start in on my second draft and think of al kinds of things I need to add into the story–better descriptions, better characterization, more description, etc. By the time I’m done, my first draft, more often than not, has turned into a bloated behemoth. It’s one of my greatest failings in writing: I tend to wax a little too eloquently.
Anyway, I recently submitted an entry to Review Fuse’s Holiday Story Contest, a short story that I wrote a couple of years ago. However, since one of the contest requirements was that any entry should be 3,000 words or less, I had a little problem: my short story as I had originally written it weighed in at 5,000 words. How to trim 2,000 words from a story? If you think it sounds easy, try it sometime, particularly with a story you like a lot. Your mind keeps saying: “But this part is genius! It can’t be trimmed!” You have to suppress that part and let the cold, objective Editor part of you take a look at the story with an unemotional eye.
So how do you trim 2,000 words from a short story?
One thing that helped me remove a large chunk of story was remembering the time-worn advice for short stories: “Get in as late as possible and get out as early as possible.” I realized that I’d tacked an unnecessary wrap-up scene onto the end of the story. Highlight. Delete. Out it went.
I also removed lots of beats (descriptions of action accompanying conversation), specifically descriptions of characters’ emotions while talking. I figured if I wrote the dialog well enough, then it would carry the emotional content adequately.
The last thing I did was scour the story for adverbs, replacing them with stronger verbs, and even removing a few adjectives, replacing them with stronger nouns.
It took a while, but when all was done, I had 3,000 words (actually a few less than that), and a much stronger story (my opinion–hopefully others will share that, too).
I’ll post back here on the results of the contest when I get them.