Sometimes, it’s obvious what needs to go for your novel to reach perfection. Some odd scenes and moments that don’t really fit in with anything or that are very clumsily written are easy to say no to, even if they seemed like a good idea at the time. Others might be sections that you are proud of having written, that you read aloud to yourself and others, marveling at how amazing and beautiful it is until you realize that it really doesn’t belong in your story. Then there are still others–surprises that you might not even know you need to cut until someone else (such as a publisher, if you’re lucky) says need to go. Where do you draw the line? What needs to be cut, and what can squeeze by?
Until I started looking very critically at my own writing and asking myself some tough questions, my editing process consisted largely of adding to and changing what I had already written. My fiction still generally comes out to be a lot shorter than I want it to be (I’m still working hard at making it substantial and thorough without being wordy), so I used to be very hesitant to cut anything out if I didn’t need to. That led to a lot of frustration. I would change something in the beginning to clear up an issue, and then go through the rest of the novel to make everything else fit–at the cost of consistency and the general order of the plot. I didn’t realize that if I had simply cut a few scenes out instead, the story would have been much better off in the long run.
So how do you know what to cut? First, know your story. Know your plot and know how every scene works into it, and then cut out everything that doesn’t work. Isolate your novel to a single point, a point which everything leads up to or everything results from. Skeptical that your novel has a point? Spend some time thinking about it. What is the heart of your story? What is the moment where everything changes, either coming to order or spinning away wildly from it? (Note: I’m not saying that all novels need to have this, and I don’t like boxing things up like that as a rule, but I have yet to find a story that I know of that does not have a point like this! If you don’t see it in your novel, you’re probably just not looking hard enough.)
After you cut out all of the scenes that don’t relate to your main point, look for scenes that add only small details to the story. There might be vital information, but if the purpose of the scene is not actively moving your plot forward, you might want to look into moving that information to a scene that does. Keep your novel in motion, and keep it flowing at a healthy pace!
Lastly, look at the sections you hated writing. We’ve all done it, forced ourselves to write a long and dull and probably preachy scene under a moral obligation that we owe it to the novel, the readers, and ourselves as writers. But that doesn’t make it good or necessary! I was shocked a few years ago when I was revising an old story I wrote and suddenly realized that if I were to cut out all of the scenes that I hated writing, the novel as a whole was a lot better. It’s also a good rule of thumb that if you hated writing something, your readers will equally hate reading it. You’re not fooling anyone by forcing it, and chances are it won’t relate nearly as much to the heart of your story as you might think at first.
Hopefully these tips will help guide you as you get to the hard part of editing and choose what should make it into your final draft and why. Please feel free to share if you have any tips or recommendations (or horror stories!) that could help!