Knowing When To Edit

by limebirdster

So last night I was in London to meet up with a few friends from university, which we tend to do every couple of months. One of the things that came up during the times when the conversation was actually about writing, was editing. Or, more specifically, editing out bits that you want to keep but don’t actually need in your novel to tell the story.

The first example was from an as-of-yet unpublished children’s book, in which a girl wants her best friend to accompany her somewhere. She’s worried about her parents saying no, and then they say yes.

The point that my friend (who is an editor) made, was that; if there was not going to be an issue, then all you really need is for the friend to say she’s coming along. If you spend time with your main character worrying about something that isn’t going to be a problem then you’re just deviating away from the actual plot.

She brought up another example from an online course that she teaches, in which a student had said in his notes that “They went on a journey, nothing much happened – I’ll come back to that later.” If nothing much happens, then nothing else needs to be said.

I think that quite often when writing, you end up with a funny anecdote or an extra chapter, that you love, but that doesn’t actually add anything to the story, and it’s difficult to take it out. But the tighter your novel is, the more likely it is to get published. Supposedly. I’ve heard it said that the more successful you are, the less you’re edited, and the more you can get away with leaving those parts in.

The most obvious example is Harry Potter. Now I love Harry Potter, I do. But half of the books in the series could easily be used as door stops or murder weapons they’re so thick. If book six didn’t exist, you would still get to the end of the same story with just a few paragraphs of added explanation. And a large chunk of the last book was very similar to Frodo and Sam’s story in The Two Towers – They walked.

I read a fantasy book last year that was roughly 1000 pages long, and over half of it was spent with the main character wandering around in a subplot that had very little relevance to the main story, other than to prove he was amazing at everything he tried and an absolute genius. Something which we already knew because it had been said about a hundred times before. I actually gave up reading that book for about six months because it just wasn’t going anywhere.

So have you ever read a book that was full of unnecessary chapters? Ever written something that you loved but didn’t really need to be in your story?

It’s a difficult balance to get right; not enough extra detail and your writing will read like a list of events that get a character from A to B with no real depth or actual story. But too much and you end up losing the main plot in a tangle of little stories that don’t go anywhere but make you smile so much that you left them in anyway!


20 Responses to “Knowing When To Edit”

  1. I had this issue with my first novel that I have now finished and it’s out to agents. I had to be brutal over editing. I did find though that those sections I took out – a lot of flashbacks to childhood – by the time I gathered them together in a word document and tweaked them, they read as short stories or at least have the potential to be worked up as such. You have to be focussed on what works for moving the plot along. I don’t like that but that seems to be what the industry wants right now. I’d much rather keep stuff in and go for the bigger picture but I don’t have that luxury right now 🙂

    • I agree, I’d much rather keep stuff in! But I think agents are much more likely to give your book a second look if it isn’t needlessly long. I think you’ve got just enough leeway to give your story some character but you’ve to be really careful not to leave too much in!

  2. I agree!! It does seem like when you’re successful you can basically write whatever you like. I’ve read a few books that could have been edited down and like you i love HP but book 5 especially was very long. i recently read “A discovery of Witches” which is very long for first book and could have been cut down in my opinion. Stephenie Meyer also has big word counts, “The Host” is huge!

    • I def agree with ‘The Host’, I tried to read it about 4 times and gave up. Then I came back to it and struggled through and I really enjoyed it! I think she could have cut out the first 1/4! haha

  3. Editing is a tricky one. I wrote a short blog article called “The man stepped onto the bus” ( which touches on this topic. If it doesn’t add to the story, then leave it out. It’s important to remember that things can add to a story through ambiance, character and slowing down the pace, as well as action.

    I also think it’s useful to think about the right time to stop editing.

    • That’s a great blog post, and you make a good point; sometimes you could even leave out the “They went on a journey – nothing much happened.” The fact that it isn’t mentioned lets the reader know that nothing happened without it needing to be said!

  4. I was just thinking about the the need for editing. I finished “A Summer of Drowning” by John Burnside, and it was so awful I wanted to fling it across the room – and not because Burnside can’t write, but because it was so abundantly clear to me that he needed a tough editor for this book and he didn’t have one. That book is FULL of avoidance of conflict, repetitive passages, Mary Sues, things that happen offstage, irrelevant quests, and it’s boring, boring, BORING. I mean, I like boring books that no one else likes, but even I couldn’t stand this mess.

    • Haha, I don’t think I could manage to read that one to the end, well done! Mary Sues do my head in, I don’t understand how writers don’t see them that way when they’re writing them!

      • These Mary Sues were some of the worst – not avatars for the author, but versions of what seemed to be the author’s fantasy girlfriend – beautiful, vapid and dull. He couldn’t bear to put any of them in danger, because they are too precious, so all the action happens elsewhere. The Mary Sues just float around moping and avoiding conflict and being pretty.

  5. “’ve heard it said that the more successful you are, the less you’re edited, and the more you can get away with leaving those parts in.”

    Yes, but as in Burnside’s case, getting away with it doesn’t make the book better. I’m willing to bet this is why so many authors “jump the shark” after their first successes. Write tight, my friends.

  6. That last paragraph really sums up the issue, for me: “It’s a difficult balance to get right; not enough extra detail and your writing will read like a list of events that get a character from A to B with no real depth or actual story. But too much and you end up losing the main plot in a tangle of little stories that don’t go anywhere but make you smile so much that you left them in anyway!”

    I struggle a LOT with this issue (as I’m certain most writers – or want-to-be writers – do), because I want to address admittedly lesser conflicts that I feel make the characters more realistic. But then I wonder if their realism is just dragging things out. But the flip side of that is that I might end up just telling rather than showing the reader how Protagonist came to this decision/realisation/whatever. Ugh.

    I do make certain to keep a document full of my “scrapped” scenes and lines that I enjoyed, but I already knew weren’t going anywhere. I figure that I can always use them in another story, or – as GJ Scobie said above – create little short stories later.

    Thanks for the insight!

    • I have a little document of scrapped scenes too! I don’t think I’ll ever actually use them in anything but I couldn’t quite get rid of them!

  7. My own experience has been similar and learning where that line is has been a huge growth point for me. My philosophy is that, if it doesn’t add to the story, if it isn’t important, it doesn’t even go in the book in the first place. I think it’s important to understand that this isn’t life. Sometimes you just have to do the “and a week later when they arrived” type thing, and that’s hard, because it can feel like you’re interrupting the flow, but as you said, it’s about balance, about not letting it drag on until your reader gives up or just doesn’t feel like slogging through your next book. I think I’ve gotten the balance right so far, and it’s turned me from a classic over-writer into a total under-writer where editing becomes filling in the details and grace notes, but that’s okay. I find it easier to add than pull out anyway, though I still do it if I need to.

    • I agree that it’s easier to add. My last project I purposefully wrote way too little so that I could add extra details after that where I had space for them.

  8. When I read, it’s to lose myself in the world of the book. If the story engages and engrosses, a bit of wandering bothers me not, I’ll follow along. If ploughing through a story takes effort, then the wanderings just confuse.

    My mind tends to work through my own work in jumps… this happens, and this, and this, and this… in effect little pods of story scenes connected into a progression toward the conclusion. A veer away might be used to expand the character, to show why something leaves the protagonist skittish when faced with a new issue, but there should be a reason for its existence.

    • I agree that I don’t mind the wandering myself, if it’s not noticeable enough to draw you out of the story then it doesn’t bother me, but I think editors and agents look at things with a far more critical eye than the average reader!

  9. Having edited by book and slashed bits/sections/chapters out, now when I read a poorly edited book, I find myself editing for the author as I go. “Why did the he/she go on and on about __________? It did nothing to advance the story.”

    • We had a big debate about why things are left in when it doesn’t add anything to the story. I think it’s pretty much just a case of what your editor or agent will let you get away with!


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