Cutting Your First Draft

Yesterday I reached the end of my second draft of Cradlesnatch. Three weeks ago the first draft stood at 92,000 words. Today the word count is 62,000. I made the decision to cut it by a third for three important reasons:

1. It felt unwieldy and unmanageable. I couldn’t see the story shape clearly enough in my head.

2. The first draft took four years to write, in short 30 to 40 minutes chunks. I wrote in coffee shops, cafés and libraries – anywhere I could get a quite moment before work or during my lunch break. Writing in such a disconnected way meant the story meandered too much.

3. I write YA fiction, and 92,000 words is just too long for that market.

I’m amazed I’ve managed to do such a hard pruning job on the manuscript. But that’s exactly what it’s been like – pruning a rose. For those of you who garden, you’ll know just how close to the root you have to prune sometimes to achieve that beautiful rose bush. You need to cut back everything but the shoots that matter; to thin out the superfluous growth until you can step back and see the shape of the thing.

So what did I cut?

The Oxbow

My first problem was the story was taking too long to get from A to B, so I focused on the big story questions, and their resolution, and cut out the meandering parts of the story between the two, keeping only one or two main conflicts between my As and Bs, rather than a whole jumbled sub-plot.

The Crowded House

Second, I looked at my minor characters. I found some had whole sub-stories of their own, so I trimmed their involvement so their actions supported the focus of the main story rather than detracting from in.

The Repeater

Next I saw I’d repeated several narrative devices within the book. There were too many cramped tunnels, too much peering through spy holes. By cutting whole chapters, I was able to keep the dark, oppressive feel of the story, without boring the reader with excessive repetition of these motifs.

The Slow Starters

Finally I looked at the opening of each scene and cut the slow starts. Invariably there was a paragraph or two which did nothing but delay the reader getting to the interesting bits. So they had to go.

So now it feels like I can see the wood for the trees, or rather the rose bush for the branches. I’m happier about the shape of the story. I’m hopeful future edits will see the right branches bud and grow in the right places resulting in a manuscript I can be proud of.

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from,,,, iTunes and Kobo.

14 thoughts on “Cutting Your First Draft

  1. elenacarpi says:

    Very interesting process. I always find it difficult to make drastic cuts or changes to my writing, but in this piece you have really highlighted the value. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lara says:

    Great comments! I’m in the middle of the same process. You are so right!

  3. Telling a story is the hard way but looks simple if all prunes are off. Thanks Lorrie for the good stuff.

  4. P.A.LewisBrown says:

    This was helpful. I am in the process of editing my book. Sometimes I would like hard copy of what you have to say, but it won’t print. Anyway, keep the advice coming.

  5. SJ O'Hart says:

    Great post. I liked how you mentioned cutting out the things you’d unconsciously repeated – I’m always doing that, too. I’ll bear that in mind in particular when I come to my next editing blitz. Thanks!

  6. I love the way you explained your process, Lorrie, and I posted a link to this blog on my Facebook page:

  7. Thank you for all the encouraging comments. it was seriously hard to cut so many words, knowing how long it took to write them. But it is certainly worth it. I’m much happier with the story now.

  8. Thanks, Lorrie, for telling us about your process. I know it will be helpful when I get to my editing. Right now, I am still working on my first draft.

  9. Junior says:

    Another good post. For me, finishing and letting it sit, then going back to it lets me see the story more clearly, and allows me to easily see where the edits need to be. It’s not a perfect process, but it helps me get started in that much-needed process.

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