Editing Your Draft: What Details to Cut or Add?

関連画像Let’s be very real here. There is no story that’s practically perfect in every way like Mary Poppins. At least, not from the first draft.

I can guarantee that J. K. Rowling had to edit Harry Potter a bazillion times to get it to where it is now.

First drafts are always just you, the writer, splurging all your ideas out on paper. It’s very raw. Editing is when you cook it up and add seasoning.

Suddenly that got delicious 😛

But what does it mean to edit? Well, besides the grammar and spelling there are two major things you are looking out for:

  • Too much detail.
  • Too little detail.

Let’s take a look at what these mean and I’ll give you some specific examples for each one.

Too Much Detail


Often, us writers tend to not trust the imagination of the reader and dump information on them. We must tell them ten pages of backstory so they really know what’s going on here.

Sometimes it’s just too much and it gets overwhelming for the reader. Explaining the world, the culture, family structures, politics, character backstory can be important, but there is such a thing as too much. You really only need what adds to your plot. If the story is about how Sammie traveled back in time, it’s interesting, but not entirely important for the reader to know where he buys his shoes all the time.

It’s not necessary to plot.

You only need so much of your lore that is necessary to make your plot more compelling or for the readers to understand some of the core moments of your story..

But how do you know what is necessary?

Make The Main Plot Clear

You need to make absolutely clear in your head (or notes if you wanna write it down) what your story is about. What is the plot? What is at stake for your protagonist? What or who is involved? If you only had a ten minutes to tell someone your entire story in brief, would you mention where Sammie gets his shoes? It is an interesting detail, but not necessary to plot, right?

That’s another point you have to consider: what you think is interesting vs what you actually need.

Just Because You Think It Is Interesting…NOPE!

What details are just there because you think it’s some interesting bit of information?

I had this story about a shy guy who is sent on a journey to a futuristic land. I had entire four chapters of backstory (cringe!) and it was basically me showing how interesting his village life is. They have festivals. They have dance competitions. His father knows some great jigging moves. Shy guy’s love interest is a rebellious tomboy.

But, what is the main plot? It doesn’t even involve the village!

Establish your main plot. What does the reader NEED to know in order to follow your plot. If Sammie time travels, do we NEED to know where he gets his shoes? If the plot is about Sammie time traveling before shoes were invented (when were shoes invented? hmm…) then maybe he might talk about where he gets his shoes.

If not, probably not. That’s probably the last thing on his mind.

Anyway, you know your plot. If you were to tell me briefly what your story is about, you might realize, hey, I have a lot of unnecessary detail that readers don’t need to know in the story in order to understand the plot.

Those things you can snip snip! Cut it out. You’ll just have that bit in your notes and post it on your blog or social media as something extra for your readers to learn about if they’re interested.

Placement of History Lessons

A common thing in fantasy, at least, are these moments of history lessons. Now, I have one such history lesson in my own story. It’s necessary to the plot, I assure you.

But I don’t just give history lessons out of the blue and I only give as much as is needed for the story.

Lore is very interesting and you can go on and on if you want to. Just keep it to a necessary minimum for understanding the plot, and no further.

If you ask me about the history of the World of Elgana, I can go on. Trust me. But do I need all that in the story? No. I just need enough to add to or explain the plot more.

If it’s just extra information that you don’t need in order to understand the plot, cut it out.

Placement of Attire Description

Don’t tell me what Sammie is wearing while we are battling a guy with guns.

Don’t tell me what Sammie is wearing while we is being questioned by police in jail.

You can tell me if he “rips his jeans” or “takes off his sweaty t-shirt” or “loses his hat”. You can tell me if he “swipes his red hat for a green one” or “takes off his necklace at the airport” or “searches the room in panic for his tag” or maybe he “notices a dark red smear growing on his beige pants. He falls to the ground. The pain reaches his brain. He can’t focus on Amber’s voice.”

If you feel like you really must tell the reader what Sammie is wearing, give us little hints at necessary intervals. Moments where the scene can slow down and it makes sense to mention the clothes and what he is wearing. Other times? Cut it out. We don’t need to know now. Tell us later.

Placement of Character’s Looks Description

Don’t tell me his eyes are painfully blue as he looks at himself in the mirror. Don’t tell me he rubbed his hand through his brown hair.

Half the time I read a book, unless the color of the hair or eyes is somehow unique or important to the story, I have not paid attention to what the character looks like. Because I am following their story and intrigued with how they are dealing with the challenges thrown at them.

Unless somehow Sammie’s one orange eye is the key to time travel, I don’t even really care if you tell me what color his eyes are.

If you do want to mention it, don’t do so during fast scenes. Do it when things slow down a bit and when description of the character is somehow necessary. Maybe Sammie is looking at someone. Maybe someone mentions Sammie’s hair color to him, “Why’s your hair so blond, Sammie? You look like corn.” or what have you.

You Laugh At Your Own Jokes, Don’t You!

Raise you hand! Who thinks they are just so hilarious sometimes?

ME! 😀

But jokes are a funny thing when it comes to fiction. Not everyone will get it especially if said joke relies heavily on some lore in your world which must be understood very deeply in order for that person to get it.

You know the old saying: If you need to explain a joke, it’s not worth it.

Also, jokes too involved with backstory or lore will not only fly over your readers’ heads, but also come off as unnecessary detail.

If you can tell that your joke is too backstory oriented for your readers to get, cut it out. If you can’t tell which jokes work and which do, you might want a second pair of eyes looking at your stuff and pointing them out for you.

Characters Having A Chat For Way Too Long

Sometimes in a first draft you might go a little too crazy with trying to established your character through dialogue.

It’s good if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of your reader and read that bit of dialogue. You might realize the characters are going on and on and on…and frankly, you are quite bored. That means not all of it is necessary to the plot.

Cut it out.

If you can’t tell if a dialogue is too long to be necessary to the plot, get a second pair of eyes to take a look at it for you.

Too Little Detail

photo of a woman thinking

Sometimes when you write a first draft, you just want to get the ideas out. You have a beginning, a middle (often conflict), and an end (climax and conflict solved), but you don’t have much meat for each of them. With too little detail, readers will have a hard time understanding what’s going on.

Personally, what is missing is harder to figure out because it all makes sense in your head. Unless you give your story to someone to read, you might never be able to see what is missing. Your brain even starts lying to you saying there is nothing missing. It truly is awful.

So, through my own editing experience (my own novels and others’) I have compiled a list of things that you might want to see if you have or not. These are things I have seen missing from first (second, third, or even forth) drafts.

Who Is This?

The vague pronoun beginnings, yes, are very mysterious and if used well, can be intriguing. The first line, “She was different.” Oooh, who is she?

Intriguing right?

Some authors get a little too carried away and continue to use the vague pronoun for an entire chapter. We don’t even know the name of our protagonist at the end of chapter one.

*lip smack*

I want to know who your character is. At least their name, please.

The most confusing type of character ambiguity is this: “She didn’t like him.”

Double ambiguous pronouns. Who is she? Who is he? Why do I need to care? Give me a name, then I can care. Readers won’t ask about the plot. They will just be confused and if this is your hook, you better give them a name ASAP or they might turn away.

Check this out:

“Sarah didn’t like him.”

I wonder why Sarah didn’t like him. Who is he? Why doesn’t she like him? The readers’ questions become more focused on the actual plot because they now have a name.

Where Are We?

Sarah was running. She was breathing heavily. He was gaining on her. She had been running for ten minutes straight. Tripping on her feet she fell to the ground and scrapped her knee. Scrambling she stood up, but there he was and he had come to capture her.

Ah, the action-packed beginning. How intriguing. I like these…

but where on Earth or not Earth is she?

You might think a running scene or an action scene should only be focused on the moment, but that doesn’t mean she’s not looking where she is going.

Sarah was running. Branches lashed against her arm. Her feet pounded on muddy ground. Birds screeched in terror, flying out of her way. He was gaining on her. She had been running for ten minutes straight. The sun hung low through the trees. Soon it would be too dark to see. Tripping on her feet she fell to the ground and scrapped her knee. Spitting dirt from her mouth she scrambled to stand up, but there he was, a looming shadow before her. Digging her nails into the mud, her heart raced for she knew, there was nowhere to run.

Peppering in description tells us well, hmm, she’s in a forest? Also, I was able to shove in that “the sun hung low” and “soon it would be too dark to see” meaning it’s probably evening or close to night.

The second example is a lot clearer, don’t you think?

Add in bit and pieces of description to draw in the reader immediately to the scene. Either the first scene of the book or any scene really. If you get a chance to, do it, but don’t go on and on.

Don’t say, “Birds screeched in terror, flying out of her way. They were blue jays. She watched their bright blue disappear in the shadows of the darkening oak forest. A cool breeze touched her cheeks as she ran and she knew, the breeze came from her old town she grew up in ten years ago. She lived in another town now.”

You can tell, it kind of slows down an action scene. Even if it wasn’t action, we don’t really need to know what kind of bird it was or what kind of trees grow in this forest or where the breeze came from unless it is important to the plot.

Characters Grappling In The Dark

Yes, it’s dark. Yes, we can’t see anything.

Recite with me the fives senses.

Here we go.

Eyes, Nose, Ears, Hands, Mouth. Seeing, Smelling, Hearing/Listening, Touching/Feeling, Tasting.

You still have four senses to use in the dark. Use those senses to give us hints as to where your character might be. What do they smell, hear, feel, and maybe even taste?

You can give us hints without revealing the answer. You can be mysterious, but don’t overdo it that you actually make it too confusing. If she’s feeling around for something, what is she feeling now? Hard, scratchy wooden floor? Muddy, wet and leaves? What does she smell?

Is it warm where she is, or cold? Can she hear anything? Voices? Whistle of wind?

Missing Information

Writers heard of too much information and got a little scared so they cut back TOO MUCH. Now the reader is confused. It’s okay to put in information, just at necessary intervals.

Sarah was standing, listening for sounds other than nature. The forest was quiet apart from the birds calling to their mates and rodents scurrying in the bushes. Then, a twig snapped. She opened her eyes and slowly reached for her sword. Just as General Titan had said, she waited before springing to action. He had taught her to be calm and that was the last lesson before his tragic death.

The moments in bold are bits of information. One, Sarah has a sword. The word “General” sounds medieval army like. Then we find out he had died, but a tragic death.

Replace “her sword” with “her weapon”. Replace “General Titan” with “her mentor”. And change the last sentence to “He had taught her to be calm and that was the last lesson.”

It’s still an interesting paragraph, but it becomes more compelling with the details added. You really have to pick and choose which details to add within each scene you work on during your editing.

Impossible Scene Jumps

Sometimes there are scene jumps too sudden that don’t make sense unless time travel or Star Trek teleportation devices are a thing.

Paragraph ends with: He had taught her to be calm and that was the last lesson before his tragic death.

Next paragraph starts with: Sarah ate lunch in the cafeteria. She was happy to see her friends again…

Uhm…what happened between these two scenes? If you don’t want to go into the detail of the fight, you can say,

“After another failed lesson with her new mentor, Sarah was told to return after lunch for more training. But at least he was giving her a break and she couldn’t wait to see her friends.

As Sarah ate lunch at the cafeteria with her friends, she filled them in on how it was going with her and her new mentor.”

Unless the lesson scene is important to the plot, you can just skim over to the next scene. Scene jumps like this are acceptable, as long as you are acknowledging the stuff that took place in the previous paragraph. You can’t just suddenly bounce to a new scene or you will confuse the readers.

Who Is Talking?

Who is talking now? I have no clue.

Dialogue tags are my enemies. I might do a series of writing discoveries with dialogue tags like I did for omniscient point of view. They’ve always been a little controversial across the writers’ world. People have debated on whether or not to use “said” or some alternatives.

But one thing that irks me as a reader is to not know who is talking especially if the voices of the two or more characters are not distinct enough to tell apart without dialogue tags.

Readers need that information especially if that dialogue is going on for a while and maybe someone says something more than once.

“What do you think about all this?”

“I mean like, for real?”

“It’s crazy.”

“Did the General really say that?”

Did the first person rephrase their words or did another person ask them what they meant? I need something more here. Even just a little indication. Please add it in, thank you.

The Balance

We’ve talked about too much detail and too little detail along with some examples for what those could be for each of them.

A question arises.

How do you find the balance between too much and too little?

Even if you know your story really well and you know what is important to have in the story for the reader to understand it, you still might not have discovered that balance.

The only way to see if your book has too much and/or too little detail is if you give your story to someone to read. Go to Facebook writing groups (I might make a list of some good ones that have helped me), go on community writing sites, get your friends to read or your relatives, join an offline writer’s club, and somehow get a second pair of eyes to read your story.

Related Articles: Dialogue Tags Discoveries & List of Helpful Facebook Writing Groups COMING SOON

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