How to edit a first novel

I recently completed my fourth Fiona Griffiths novel – as yet untitled. The book is good. It’s got a good crime, contains a nice locked-room mystery, has one good (shocking) sequence midway through the story, and a proper all-action denouement at the end. The publisher – those nice folks at Orion – like the book and it’ll be launched some time in spring next year.

So far, so good. But both my editor and I felt the book just felt a bit long. Not that there was anything in particular which was redundant or not needed, just that the whole book needed to be a tad shorter.The book was like a ship dragging a sea-anchor. Nothing needed to be rebuilt; we just had to reduce the drag.

This post is about How To Edit a Novel all right, but it’s based on an actual example of an actual published author (me) going through that process myself – and using good old chunks of text from my manuscript by way of example.

The book was 136,500 words when I delivered it, but I have just finished a process of cutting and re-editing that has taken it down to 131,000 words. Since my changes included about 750 words of additional text, that means I’ve trimmed a total of somewhat more than 6,000 words, or about 5% of the novel.

This post aims to lift the hood on how I did that. What kind of cuts I made, the other adjustments that ensued, the thought processes involved.

Before we get into the detail (and these things are all about detail), three things. First, this will be my ninth published novel and my thirteenth or fourteenth book. You can’t be in the game as long as I have without learning a thing or two, so it’s a pretty fair bet that my first draft looks and feels tighter than yours does. That’s not because you’re crap; it’s because I’ve had more practice. But it does mean that you should not set yourself a target of cutting your draft by 5% – that will almost certainly be too low. I’d say, a tight first draft by a new writer would usually be able to lose 10% quite easily. It’s not uncommon for 20-30% to be a more accurate target.

Second, the draft I first delivered to my publisher had already been edited hard. Not just for length, but for everything else. Flow, atmosphere, plot logic, characterisation, dialogue, beauty, everything. Although the emphasis in this post is on how to cut a novel – a vital skill – you should not conclude that that’s all that’s involved in editing. It isn’t! Everything matters. This post is just about one small slice of the whole process.

And third, it’s worth bearing in mind that the narrator in what follows is my little Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths, who has, according to one reviewer, ‘some of the most memorably staccato narration in the genre’. In other words: she likes short sentences and frequently clips verbs or pronouns where it would be more normal to retain them. But that’s her voice; you do not have to follow suit. In other words, the decisions I make have to be taken in that Griffithsian context. Your decisions will be made in the context of your voice, your characters, your market, your story.

OK. Enough preamble. Let’s look at some cuts.


In this chunk, I’ve actually got the hatchet out: big chunks are dropping out. Some of it is simply about removing surplus. (We didn’t need the names of six different colours of rock/lichen, for example. We didn’t need to know exactly how far Fiona had soaked herself.) But notice how the scene becomes better as a result. All the pieces were there before, but the assembly was a bit slipshod. This tighter format makes the atmospherics work better, even though there’s actually less atmospheric language.

But some of the cuts also had to do with a willingness to trust the reader. So, in the first version, my narrator actually said, in effect, “Look, I’ve see the crime scene photos and I know I’m in the right spot.” The second version just drops all that. Most readers won’t even wonder how Fiona knows where to stand. Those that do can probably be trusted to think, “Oh, I guess there’d be file photos, something like that.”

And notice too the tiny changes. “Just about practical” becomes “manageable”. That’s a saving of just two words, but I’d say that a full third of my cuts were probably made up of such tiny things. Here are a couple more examples of tiny cuts – and there were hundreds, or even thousands of such things through the new draft:


Here, the sense of ‘can’t see anything’ is adequately reflected in Fiona’s question, so the sentence can go. Three words saved. Yummy.

And, before we move on, just one more example of tiny:

how-to-cut-a-novel-9One word saved. Hooray.

Overall, it was fairly rare that I came across passages (like the first passage above) that I could really hack into. Much more common was a host of small or tiny changes that cumulated to something bigger. In total, Microsoft Word reckons I made 3400 changes between the first draft and the second. Now, you can maybe quibble about the way it counts, but the point is still good. You can cut a lot of words by making a lot of small changes. It’s hard work, but you’re a writer. And work is fun.

Now take a look at this:


The very first passage was taken, not from an action scene exactly, but one with real vibrancy all the same: a quest to see if an accidental death might really be a suicide. The chunk above, however, comes from one of those scenes that all novels have aplenty. Ones that are necessary to the story, but which don’t have real dramatic frisson. So the cuts above were aimed at simply reducing word count. Not too far, of course: we still need to ‘meet’ Emmett and to feel the atmosphere of that meeting. If I’d cut too far, the text could have felt economical but bland. But still. We didn’t need that sentence starting, ‘I’d have preferred …’.

And yes, that sentence does do something to characterise Fiona G, but her character is all over this novel anyway. So keeping a sentence like that in a scene that wants to be shorter made no sense. Out it went.

The same kind of logic applied here:


The deleted material is perfectly OK, but it characterises a location that isn’t actually used in the scene. Fiona encounters her ex-convict friend in the car park, not the waiting room, so I left in the bit that talks about the car park, and cut the rest. Truth is, I think I was writing myself into the prison scene with that stuff about the waiting area. Which is OK. You’re welcome to write yourself into the scene – just remember to delete the fluff. And even that bit in the car park is a wee bit tightened.

You also need to realise that you’re seldom just cutting … even if cutting word count is your only mission. Here’s a small example of what I mean. (But again: this is all about detail: small matters.)


Now all I’ve done there is delete the six words about sailing boats. (Not worth doing? But six words is 0.1% of my total reduction target! That’s massively worth it.) But you’ll notice that the bit about the Bay now jumps to the previous paragraph. No actual words have changed but, even for the staccato Ms Griffiths, that “Views …” sentence didn’t have the muscle to comprise a paragraph all on its own, so I cut the para break and the text flows better. You have to be alert to those rhythmical things all the time. Here’s another example:


That first deletion (‘all’) is simply a tidying up thing. It makes the sentence shorter, yes, but it also makes it better. I’d have made the change, even if I weren’t on a hunt for word count. But notice the next bit. I deleted the sentence ‘Like the efficient …’ because I wanted to compress this (not-very-high-octane) scene, but then having done so, the repetition of the word ‘finish’ would have been too much. So the first instance goes. And the rhythm now works again: the staccato four word sentence (‘neat, swift, ..’), followed by one that sets up the reaction shot – and a teeny bit of tension as to how Jackson will respond.

And as you cut text, you’ll find you get sensitised to other little points of detail. Ones like this, for example:


You’ll notice that that’s three words cut, but three words added. There’s no alteration in meaning, nor have I even fiddled about with the sentence’s key flavour-giving words (ie: best-known, king, obscure). So why make the change? The answer is that the starts and ends of sentences have more power than the middles. A sentence that ends ‘ … not the most obscure either’ is just a little less forceful than one that says ‘… nor is he the most obscure.’ I changed the sentence so that the weight could lie in the final word, not the penultimate one.

A similar kind of point lies behind this cut:


This is the end of a chapter. The first version still leaves Fiona’s question nicely mysterious – but the last four, very short, paragraphs don’t really add any more spice than simply ending the chapter at ‘And look, there’s something else.’ Ending early and arriving late is a very good rule to remember when checking your chapter constructions. Are you getting in as close as possible to the dramatic action? Are you leaving as soon as possible thereafter? And do note that ‘dramatic action’ means anything at all which increases the story pressure in the mind of the reader. Fiona’s final question blips that pressure up a notch – what is she asking? what does she want? – so the best place to finish the scene is right there, with the reader mid-blip.

Since this is a long post already, that’s probably the place to leave it. But don’t feel you have to struggle alone with your novel. We run an absolutely brilliant self-editing course – one of the very best things we do – and you’ll be helped not just with the kind of thing we’ve discussed in this post, but with everything else you need to tackle too. And do check out all our other, broader comments about prose style and story structure.

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