Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 3: Cut It Down)

Writing Tips and Tricks

Cut it Down

You’re in the final phase of writing your first draft. You’ve got the information down on the page and you’ve organized it. You can give the analgesics a rest. You’ve created a chapter or your book from nothing, and that’s pretty amazing. Now you can cut it back a bit more, so you can polish what’s left. You’ve already nuked a lot of unnecessary text during Step 2. Still, most of us have a tendency to use more words than we need, which can dilute our argument or story. At this point, I find I can cut back at least 10 percent (a goal I often set for myself), but everyone is different. The following tips can help your pruning.

I’m not saying an editor won’t suggest additional revisions, but by following these six guidelines you’ll be half way to presenting a strong, clean piece of work. Why only halfway? Because I waaaaay overshot my blog word-count limit for Part 3, so I’ve divided the polishing guidelines into two blogs— these nine guidelines and Part 4: Clean It Up.

1. Trim the fat
A guideline: if you ask yourself whether you need it, you can probably cut it. You can always save your words to another page, just in case.

Here's what can go:

  • Weak words and phrases, such as “basically,” “I think,” or “in my opinion.” Sometimes they’re necessary but not often.
  • Repeating the same point several times. Unless it’s stylistic, delete the extra reps.
  • Unnecessary adjectives. For example, instead of writing “Miriam said quietly,” you could write “Miriam whispered.”
  • Buried ledes. Avoid strings of disclaimers or introductory phrases.  Just get to the point.

For example:

Not so great: One can make a fairly safe supposition that the Puritans who colonized the Americas and their deep devotion to keeping journals could be considered to have strongly influenced the style of literature in the United States.
Much better: Many literary critics argue that the Puritans’ dedication to keeping journals affected literary style in the United States.

If you have a section that seems unwieldy or goes on forever, yet all points seem necessary, think about dividing it, or moving paragraphs to another section or saving for another chapter.

2. Think value
Every point, statement, question, and word should have a reason to be in your piece. Be ruthless—if a word or phrase does not add value to your writing, get rid of it.

3.  Be reasonable about paragraph length   
Write paragraphs that aren’t too long or short. One sentence is too short, unless it’s for style. Three sentences can work.  If you have a paragraph that exceeds a half page, try to break it into at least two paragraphs.

4. Keep sentences relatively short
Overly long sentences slow the reader down and can hide your meaning. Try keeping your sentences to about 150 characters. For style, you can use fragments (but those aren’t sentences, so technically I shouldn’t mention them here, which isn’t stopping me). Here are a few examples of fragments: “Done.” “Not happening.” “No go.”

5. Limit your adjectives

Adjectives can add interest and clarity, but too many can slow down the flow of your ideas, make for flabby writing, and dilute impact. So use them judiciously. For example:

  • Try “ship” instead of “large boat.” You don’t really need an adjective because one strong word works better than two weaker ones.
  • Instead of “wild-eyed, hyped-up, cuticle-gnawing dog walker,” choose just one of the adjectives or come up with one that encapsulates all three descriptions, maybe, jittery, hyper, or fretful. Or you can show an action: “That pug is freaking me out.” The dog walker gnawed her cuticle. “Look at how he watches me.”

For more examples, read Stephen King’s memoir/fiction guide, On Writing, to learn about his struggle with adjective abuse.

6. If you can use a simpler word, do it
Your readers shouldn’t have to work too hard to understand what you’re getting at, or fry their nerves on caffeine to stay awake trying. Sure, there’s a place for industry jargon. You don’t want to insult your audience by oversimplifying terms they can define in their sleep. But if you’re writing for a mainstream market, keep it accessible.

When you get to a point where you feel you might be tossing out too much, possibly causing more harm than good, stop. And when you’re ready, you can move to the best part—polishing.


I'd love to hear from you

What do you think? I’ve talked about six ways to cut down your first draft. Which were most helpful?

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