How to Cut 17,000 Words

Hi friends.

I completed a new draft this week. It’s a big one, which took me about three months to finish. It was based off a draft I had submitted to my editor in mid-October, which she gave me notes on a week later. The version I submitted to her was 92,000 words. The draft I just completed is 75,000 words. So, somehow, I cut 17,000 words from this book.

Holy shit, that’s a lot of words.

I’ve never actually done anything like that before. When I write my novels, I tend to write sparingly, even underwriting in spots initially. If I ever go long it’s just to try things out; it feels more like an exercise – I might run a character through a conversation with another character, for example, just to get to know them better – and the results often just sit in my notebook, never making it to the screen. But the agreement with my editor with this book was that I would go long, write it all out, and then trim it later. And that is what I did.

So believe me I know: if you’ve got an unwieldy draft sitting in front of you right now, it’s the worst. It can feel overwhelming. How do I attack this monster? How do I whip this thing into shape? And how do I throw away my beautiful, beautiful words?

I thought it might be helpful to break down how I cut out those 17,000 words. Obviously what worked for me might not work for you, as I’m speaking specifically of editing a memoir. Also, not everyone has access to a professional, top-of-their-game editor, especially one they’ve been working with for nearly a decade. And there were lots of little things I did along the way that would be impossible to capture! The times when we work in a haze or a fury – who can remember those moments clearly? And how do you bottle instinct?

But, looking back, there were three parts of the editing process that were most helpful in terms of big cuts: the help of an editor, targeting length, and letting things go.

The help of an editor. These cuts wouldn’t have been possible without my editor’s notes on that first draft. She identified what my general themes were and where I executed them most successfully, and then slashed the less engaging repetitions. She also threw out a few chapters entirely, some of which were newer material, and one chapter which was an old essay. For some of those cuts, I agreed, and for others, I resurrected some of their material in other places. It was an important and effective collaboration. Her judgement was crucial.

I realize everyone reading this is at different stages in their career and process, and that not everyone is delivering a draft to an editor. But you can find another reader, either professional (someone you hire, or an agent) or a colleague, a friend, or members of a writing workshop. Ask the people who will tell you the truth, but also ask the people who are on your side, and who want you to succeed.

Target word count. I knew I wanted this book to be about 75,000 words. I just felt it in my gut. I think it’s beneficial to consider how much time you want a reader to spend engaging with your book to understand your story. Even just imagining the heft of it in your hand is helpful. Do you want it to be a doorstop or do you want it to be something you could carry with you to a café or a park and lounge with it outside? (Nothing wrong with a doorstop by the way, but my personal story doesn’t warrant it!) The length of your book should not be an arbitrary thing you end up with, but a decision you make about the way you want your book to live, look and feel in the world.

Another helpful strategy: deciding the length of chapters themselves, the individual parts of the whole. I knew that I wanted most chapters to be around 5,000 words and some chapters to be around 3,000 words and maybe two or three around 1,500 words. And those lengths meant something to me.

For example, with a 5,000-word chapter, a reader might not have time to finish it in one sitting. So maybe they’re more contemplative chapters for me, I’m musing a bit more on the topics contained within, and I want the reader to spend time musing with it, too. Walk away and come back to it, perhaps. A 1,500-word chapter is a nibble in comparison, but on the other hand, the shorter stories contained within it were important enough to me to just live in their own short space, more of a scene, a specific moment in time. I wanted to direct the reader’s attention to this thing that happened to me once.

After I identified which chapter length matched the subject, I could start trimming to arrive at that place. I felt powerful and focused with the word count as a destination.

Letting things go. Once I started cutting, I made a file where I dumped things that I liked and that still felt important to me even if my editor hadn’t liked them. Sometimes I cut things that were slowing the story down in their current location but were still relevant to me. After I finished a new chapter or two of edits, I would go back and look at that file and see if I could delete some of the material because it was clearly covered it in this new version of the chapter. Maybe I would recognize that it wasn’t as brilliant as I had thought in the first place, or maybe that storyline was no longer interesting. Snip-snip.

But sometimes I could see how I might want to use a cut section in the future, so it stayed in that file. Or it said something original that I hadn’t discussed yet. In fact, there were three sections from entirely different chapters that I just couldn’t let go of, and cut after cut, they were still in that document. Finally, I began to see how the three sections belonged together thematically and a new chapter formed out of them.

There was a constant flow and conversation with those edits, so that when I knew when I was saying goodbye to them, I really meant it. What started out as a fifty-page document of extras eventually got whittled down to just a few paragraphs.

Maybe the hardest part of editing a memoir is saying goodbye to pieces of your life. How do you cut these words detailing that which meant so much to you?  But you must remember: your life still happened, whether it’s in the book or not.

Look, you can write the story of your life with every minuscule detail and moment, or you can write a book that people will actually want to read. Sometimes you have to let go of the little things in service of the bigger story and the reading experience. And don’t forget – you will still have in your possession the version that documents everything. You’ve written it down. It may not be read by anyone else, but you had the opportunity to learn what you needed by writing it down. You were able to examine your life from a new angle. If a certain story doesn’t make the final cut it doesn’t mean it’s not important, or that you didn’t write it well. It just means it’s not a part of this book.

Good luck with your cuts,

Jami

You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to Southern Poverty Law Center.