Editing – How Much is Enough?

by Chris McMahon

So you have completed your first draft. Fresh from the rush of getting the story all down in one place and having typed those magical words “THE END” you start – what is  for most writers –  the most time-consuming part of the business.

Editing your manuscript.

I have heard this element of the process described as  “creative bookkeeping”. That sounds a little clinical to me. I find this part takes a lot less creative energy than first drafting (which has become increasing harder). Everyone is different.

The general idea is simple – get rid of what you don’t need, what does not serve the story. The unnerving thing is that so much of the writing process is instinctive, how can you really know what you’re turfing out isn’t crucial on some level you cannot perceive?

Some things are straightforward, like streamlining sentences and paragraphs. Some scenes can be cut without too much of a qualm. Beyond that you are down to collapsing characters into each other, or losing some completely. This is the sort of thing that gives me the shivers. Have I gone too far? Was that character the oddball quirk that could make this noticeable to an editor?

I came to grips with this when I was editing my manuscript, Warriors of the Blessed Realms. As is typical for me, the thing had bloated up 10,000 words from the earlier edits – up to a shocking 160,000 words. That word total is like some sort of lodestone for me unfortunately. My challenge was to get this down to 120,000 words or less. Ouch. I did manage it – but it was tough.

It was surprising how much I managed to remove by just trimming and condensing the text – at least a good 10,000 words – which is sort of embarrassing. Do I really write that sloppily? I guess it’s part of the process. At the time I hoped that maybe the writing gods have seen fit to increase my skills since I did the first draft.

I got the total down to 131,00o words doing the usual sorts of streamlining and scene-cutting. That in itself seemed  like something of a miracle. I had not been able to do this without removing a few incidental characters and some other scenes which I guess weren’t that important to the story. It still hurt losing them! The thing that concerned at the time as I cut and cut and cut was –  am I losing some essential essence from the story? This thought haunted me even more as I ground the total down even further to 120,000, losing even more scenes and another whole character.

What do people think? Can you chop too far? Make the story too spare? Too mechanical? Or is all-out war on the adjective and metaphor and storyline justified?


  1. As they say, nine-and-sixty ways. I don’t edit myself. I can’t, actually, except in the most trivial ways (“oh, look, I used the same word twice in three paragraphs, lemme find a synonym for one of them that works”). The only editing gets done when my editor(s) get hold of the original manuscript and tell me what they think needs to be changed (assuming I agree with them; usually I do once I understand what their reasoning is)

    1. Hi, Ryk. I would think that is probably the best editing of all – when a trusted & skilled editor can look at your manuscript with objective eyes. I guess it’s easier to make those tough decisions when you are not so close to the work – one of the reasons writers often need to put their manuscript ‘on the shelf’ for quite a number of months before they can make those kind of calls themselves. Of course there is always the danger that the editor does not ‘get’ what you are trying to do . . .

      Chris McMahon


  2. Chris, I hate to do it, but I have to disagree with your definition of the basic idea of editing. There is more to it than just getting rid of what’s not needed. It includes adding in information or fleshing out scenes you might have skimped on during the draft process. It also includes rearranging scenes as needed. This is especially true for those writers who are more pantsers than plotters.

    Basically, in my opinion, editing (as opposed to copy editing and proofreading) at this point deals with plot, pacing and characterization. In other words, the strength of the story. The selective removal of adjectives, adverbs and metaphors falls more into the copy editing realm.

    Full disclosure here: I’ve been in critique groups where one or members have marked every instance of passive voice, every word ending in -ly, every adjective and have insisted they be removed from the story. The problem is, all of those have their place in a story. It is when they are overused that it becomes a problem.

    So, to answer your question, yes. You can edit the life out of a story. There’s nothing wrong with having adjectives, adverbs and metaphors in your story–as long as they aren’t overdone. Just as you don’t want a story that is nothing but talking heads, you also don’t want a piece of fiction that is nothing but a recitation of facts and actions. Those adjectives and adverbs can help bring your character to life, just as their dialog can. The key, as it is with so many things, is moderation.

      1. Chris,

        Um… That’s not editing. That’s, at best, copyediting. And why are you reducing the word count? Do you have a market telling you you have to? Have you considered the alternative, such as breaking it into two novels? Why not?

        Minimalism, the philosophy that says you should remove EVERY adjective, adverb and extraneous word is sort of like cubism in painting. It works great, if you happen to be a genius. For everyone else it allows them to produce flavorless pap. Honestly, of all the authors I mentor (which assumes they can write at some level, or I don’t mentor them) the REAL issue is not having to much in, it’s having NO life in the manuscript. (Incidentally — know who broke every rule of minimalism with her first three books? J. K. Rowling. She even has those “said bookisms” the establishment recoils in horror from.)

        Also — as someone who has done INCREDIBLY detailed plotting in advance — that don’t guarantee it’s “good”. Your statement that you have good structure and good pacing had me groaning. You might. Or you might not. You actually cannot possibly have a clue. Why not? Because you have blind spots. How do I know that? EVERYONE does. Back when I figured out the editors weren’t going to edit me, and someone needed to, I bought this book: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-Yourself/dp/0060545690/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1330135943&sr=8-1 It taught me to see at least SOME of my blind spots. It’s the best thing you can do short of hiring an excellent editor who understands your aims. If you can’t get it in OZ, I have a package to send to da Monkey and I’ll stick it in. I’m not picking on you. I was exactly where you are once. That book made me realize I didn’t have clue one what editing meant. (I had never had ONE good edit. I still haven’t had one at the level that book teaches.)

        1. Hi, Sarah. I might not be multi-published at novel length, but I have been at this a long time. Of course an objective editor is best – but when I mention what I believe are my strengths I do so based on external comments from other people over a long period of time – not what I’d like to believe. That does not mean I always do it well. Anyone can improve in any area and I’ll take note of your book recommendation.

          I try to make my posts topical, but try not to lecture anyone. They are always based on where I am as a writer and my own experience.

          I appreciate people adding to the discussion and expanding the scope of it – but do not pursue argument for the sake of it, which I personally find boring to read and consider others will too.

          Chris McMahon


          1. Chris,

            Of course you’ve been at this a long time. I wrote eight novels (over about fifteen years — I also did a lot of short stories, and sold some of those) before I ever published professionally. I have since published 21 novels and there are four more in the pipeline. I STILL have blind spots. And of course I base my opinions on what I’ve heard over time. (Which is often wrong, btw. People told me for YEARS that I couldn’t plot. Until Dave Freer looked at my stuff and said “No, you just don’t foreshadow.”) However, I keep finding new blind spots to fix. That’s how a writer grows. You don’t see the blind spots, you don’t grow. Sorry. It’s a fact of life.

            No, there is no point in lecturing. BUT there is a point in trying to make people who are behind you on the road understand that the hill they see ahead is in fact NOT the top of the mountain. Also, a lot of writing ends up being “your mileage may vary” and BELIEVE me, as a pro who has been doing this for twenty six years now, eleven of those as published/pro, it changes with time and experience. In ten years you might (I almost guarantee you will, if you improve, and of course, I hope you improve, as I hope I improve. Even Dave who is miles better than I is improving — which is more than a little scary) look back at what seems perfect now and groan.

            My WORST experience as a writer was selling what was my absolutely best work at the time I wrote it (fifty page, detailed outline) … eight years after submission. When I picked up the work where I’d been REACHING and which was the best I’d done, EVER, I had a panic attack it read so flawed to me. Finishing that work — which had been accepted by bantam, flaws and all — was like collaborating with a twit. And I couldn’t kill the twit, because she was me… eight years before.

            In writing “perfect” doesn’t exist. Cutting/rearranging words is what people always do first, because it hurts less. Doesn’t mean that’s what needs done. I haven’t seen your work, so I don’t know, but I also haven’t seen the work of the people reading this, so I’d like them to know “that’s not what professional editors do and it’s not even real editing.” THIS is very important RIGHT now because so many people are paying CRAZY fees for “editing” — like 1.5k — which turns out to be word rearranging. So to me (and Kate, because she knows at least one of these people) THIS is a vital topic right now. 1.5k is reasonable to pay for EDITING — with an editor with insight, who gets structure, etc. — but NOT for copyediting, where only the wording gets changed/cut.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I have the opposite problem to you in some ways. My editing process generally adds words, as I flesh out motivations. My aversion to spoon-feeding means that I often only put half my ideas on the page in the first draft (and I write mainly shorts), in the hope the reader can flesh out the rest. Invariably editors will question my character’s motivations because I see more on page than is actually there.

    On the other hand, I’ve never written close to 160,000 words in a single manuscript 🙂

    1. Hi, Chris. That is a very tough balance isn’t it? With character I tend to put probably too much and have to trim as a rule. What I often struggle with is how much to put on the page in terms of the developing mystery elements. It is difficult to judge, and I have found that every reader has a different take on it – leaving you even more confused after crit group meetings:) Really though, I think most SFF readers are pretty sophisticated and can fill in the gaps themselves. For every reader that will say ‘huh?’ there are ten more that will see right through your plot. I really think less is more for critical mystery elements, or hidden elements of background that are critical to major plot points. Character is a tough one. Everyone is different in what they look for in characterisation. When you figure that out – let me know!

      Chris McMahon


    2. Chris L — my editing process adds words and scenes, because my major flaw as a writer is what Toni W. calls “Leaving crucial stuff out.” I mean, it’s so clear in my head, why put it in?
      I’ve written close to 160k words, but — because I’m a spare writer (free, with every purchase of a writer!) that one –250k words — will eventually be a six book series.

  4. I totally agree when it comes to mystery. Foreshadowing without giving everything away. I guess you have to give the reader a chance to figure it out for themselves, but I like to hold a lot back.

    Probably too much.

  5. Chris,

    I’d actually call what you’re talking about here more along the lines of copyediting – like I said yesterday, editing editing is much more about tightening the plot, tweaking the subplots to support the major plot, focusing everything in the book more tightly around your main character, and so forth. That’s difficult.

    What you’re doing here is necessary, but without the insight of a structural edit, you run the risk of just obfuscating things even more. Even for plotters it’s common for the themes to emerge as the book is written, so you don’t necessarily know what or even who it’s about until you’re done.

    As far as mystery goes, if you analyze any mystery, you’ll find that the clues and cues are right there in plain sight. What the author does is put them there but draws attention elsewhere. That’s exactly what you do for foreshadowing major plot points, anything a character is hiding that you want to signal (Dave’s The Forlorn has an excellent example of this), and your world building. You put it there, but you don’t call attention to it. It’s just part of the background.

    Getting all of that in, judging pace and tension levels through the book, and making sure it leaves readers satisfied at the end is bloody difficult. And like I said yesterday, I don’t know any authors who can do that kind of structural edit on their own work.

      1. Actually, Chris, it’s easy to chop 25% with nothing more than copyediting. Clearing out verbal cruft and irrelevant scenes will do it most times.

        1. Well everyone is different. I went well beyond cutting away the chaff. I can tell you that in this case of WBR it was more than copyediting. If you read my post you will see that I refer to cutting characters. I could not do that without an impact on the storyline.

          Chris McMahon


          1. Chris,

            Actually, I had to read your post several times to catch that around all of the references to straightforward copyediting. I get that no-one puts as much effort into making sure a blog post is clear and easy to read as they do into their professional writing, so… I missed that bit.

            Yes, conflating minor characters into a single is part of structural editing. It’s probably one of the minor parts – and honestly, if you’re angsting that much over conflating minor character, you probably need an editor to help with the structural aspects – minor characters are rarely more than background and ancillary to the majors. Conflating some isn’t going to eliminate color or anything like that. Think of the last 3 Harry Potter books – every one of those could have seen a great chunk of the middle collapsed by several hundred pages.

              1. Chris,

                I think you misunderstand the nature of pantsing. To be a good writer as a pantser, you have to understand plot, character and structure so intimately that the work is done at a subconscious level while you write.

                I rarely need to do much structural work because I’ve done enough study of structure that it happens automatically. If you want, ask Sarah about ConSensual. What she got was spell-checked first draft. What she gave me was a couple of tweaks to add, and one shift of perspective. In short, I did not need do do anything on the scale of killing 40 thousand words. It’s… oh, eight years since the story that needs that level of editing. In years gone by that piece would probably have been published as a cast-of-thousands goat-gagger. The market of the last 10 years or so, no.

                And before you say anything else, yes I have read your work.

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