Peggy Bechko: Chop, Hack and Whittle – A Writer’s Guide to Cutting Your Work


by Peggy Bechko

Cutting? As in shortening the length of your masterpiece? Why would you do that? What does it matter really?

Well, it matters a whole lot. If a magazine says maximum length is 2,500 words and not one more, no exceptions, the editor probably means it. Screen script? Max of 120 pages (yes there are a whole lot of ways to cheat, but it won’t win you any friends if you do), novel 100,000 words – if they say it they mean it.

If there is a stated limit it might well be the first thing the editor/reader/publisher looks at. Over limit, the hard work of hours, days weeks, could well get tossed without a backward glance. Yes, there are exceptions, but why go there?

Okay, okay, as a writer you crab, “but my story/article/script can’t be told in that limiting number of words! I can’t be free! If I chop it and change it all around to accommodate it won’t be the same any more. It won’t be MY story!

Yes it can. Yes you can.

Come on, really? There are limits everywhere, no reason why a writer can’t comfortably adhere to those set by people they want to work with.

There are some simple and quick ways to cut down on words marching across the page which results in reducing the number of pages if you’re writing a script or novel.

Think abo9ut it. How often do we add words because they’re beautiful things. But if you cut down on them the shortness can give the words that remain just that much more authority. It can make the action more hard-hitting, grab the reader’s attention.

So, an example. “You look like something that crawled up out of the gutter after rolling with the trash,” Tara’s mother said, words laced with the disgust and anger she felt with her daughter.

Instead, how about: “What are you, a street walker?” Tara’s mother railed.
What do you think? Shorter? Still gets the picture across?

Another possibility: -ing words can be a problem and there are many times when ‘search and destroy’ is in order if you’re overusing them. But there are times when –ing, if properly used can shorten things up by a word or two.

For example: Arman ran up the street and sang his message to Joannie’s window.
Or Running up the street Arman sang his message to Joannie’s window.

How often do we use words such as That and Said that could easily be left out?

Reread your work and watch those words pop out at you. Writers can easily cut them and no one will miss them. There are even many times when The can be eliminated. Read, reread and see what you can strip out of your writing.

Cut the adjectives already – we get it. You might decide to use two, perhaps, even three if necessity demands, but six or seven? Really, I think the reader gets the gist before that’s necessary.

How about instead of just ‘describing’ you give some action to the scene that makes things jump. Instead of telling the reader the char was old and shabby and muddy and grungy and wobbly why not just say something like: his dingy recliner shook and creaked as he eased into it.

Don’t forget you can use contractions as well. In fact since it’s in the normal flow of conversation I recommend it. Has not becomes hasn’t. You have is you’ve. He will becomes he’ll. Make sure it flows, but don’t hesitate to use them.

There are all kinds of ways to cut down on black on your white page. Go on. Have at it!


Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.