Killing your darlings, guest blog

Today we've got a guest-blog from Scott Pack, Publisher at The Friday Project and authonomy, who is sharing some tips on writing and the approaches that get a book noticed
If you read any of the reviews I post on authonomy then the chances are you will have come across the word ‘overwritten’ quite a lot. It is my most commonly leveled criticism on this site.

But what does it actually mean? And why is it a problem?

If I had to explain it in one sentence it would be this: You are trying too hard.

And if I were allowed one more sentence, I would add this: You are using too many words.

Allow me to elaborate on that. Too much description, too many adverbs, too much padding can often get in the way of the story, and the story is the most important thing you have as a writer.

If you want to wax lyrical about a character walking down the stairs and wish to spend three paragraphs describing the stairs, the sound the stairs made, the feelings the character experiences as he walked down the stairs, the pattern of the carpet, the atmosphere etc. then by all means feel free, but would this: He walked down the stairs serve the story just as well?

I am not suggesting that you use sparse language and hone everything down to the bare bones, although it didn’t seem to do Hemingway much harm. Neither do I think it is healthy to restrict your natural voice. But a lot of first-time writers have a tendency to go on a bit and you could save yourself a lot of hassle by thinking about that before you start submitting your work.

If you are fortunate enough to have your work taken on by a publisher then one of the first things they are likely to do is take a red pen to your work of art and ask you to remove loads of words. The ones you don’t need. You stand a better chance of being published if you can preempt this by reviewing your manuscript with a critical eye. Do not be afraid to take things out. Challenge yourself. Compare your work to that of published writers in the same genre. What is the difference?

The answer is often that they don’t take as long to get to the point.

And yes, there are often exceptions that prove the rule but, do yourself a favour, assume you aren’t the exception and it could save you a lot of grief.



  1. Good advice. I just spent the last month 'butchering' my manuscript and scared myself when the word count went down by a third but it was really worth it as it reads so much better now.

  2. I started out with over 210k words and wondered how I could ever trim any of them out. Thanks to some good advice by members like Johnny Vee I now have 160K words of much better material. I am quite sure that even more could be removed but that's as far as I want to go.
    ps just for the record. I'm not actually all that fond of Hemingway. :D

  3. But what are the exceptions to the rule, Scott?

    For me - creating a non-exisitent fantasy world can't be done on a shoestring of words. I like the full budget and appreciate them when reading other works too.

    Hemingway's a master and still being read fifty years after his death.

    Maybe low-fat books are just a passing fashion.

  4. Scott,
    I took my book down from 150, 000 to 90,000 words to make it more Authonomy friendly and as a result got to the heady heights of 60 in the charts before I gave up. But … I cut and reworked content not style. My book’s a hard read about death in the family but lends itself to stripped back prose so ‘overwriting’ was never a problem. (My problem was trying to get a diverse audience to engage with and respond to a hard subject. Even though ‘care for the elderly’ has been a hot topic for the last few years no one wants a ‘straight’ account of the indignity facing most people at the end of their lives.)

    To get the most out of the site now I’ve limited my read requests to one simple question – does the first chapter work? If enough people think it’s ok I’m on the right track no matter where I am on the spectrum between Dan Brown and Cormac McCarthy. (And I’m not so sure about editors these days – I just read ‘Skippy Dies’ and ‘A Man of Parts’ – both overlong and ill edited.)

    If ‘Nothing you can do’ ever gets published I’ll probably put back 10,000 words.


  5. Don't forget to have a compelling story and a great short pitch, or your work won't get on the editor's desk to start with.

    If they like the story, they'll help you pare it down to their preferred size, or make it longer to break into a series.

    Editors take the word count too seriously.

  6. I read Scott's comments about waxing 'lyrical about a character walking down the stairs' with a smile on my face.

    This week I completed my second novel, a Regency whodunnit entitled the 'The Missing Heiress.' During the climax of my novel Detective Stephen Lavender finally finds the missing heiress and she is doing just that - walking down the stairs.

    'A delicate white hand appeared on the banister upstairs followed by an arm clothed in black. Then she appeared. Smaller than Lavender had imagined and thinner. The oval face and the stubborn little chin were those in the portrait handed to him by the Armstrongs, just over a week ago. Her porcelain skin was pale.
    The missing heiress descended the stairs carefully. A borrowed gown hung loosely on her slight frame. Her white-blond head bowed as she lifted the long hem of the skirts.
    A dress which belonged to Goddard’s dead mother no doubt, he thought. She wore no wedding band.

    However, despite 'waxing lyrical' about Helen Carnaby's descent down a staircase, I would like to defend my style of writing on the grounds that this level of detail is what the reader's of historical fiction expect. Our reader's expect us to transport them to another world and make them want to stay there. This cannot be done without description.

    I totally agree with LizX's comment that 'a non-existent fantasy world can't be done on a shoestring of words.' Nor can the extinct world of Regency England be created without adjectives and descriptive phrases.

    Karen Charlton

  7. I've got the horrible feeling this might be aimed at me...

  8. Lots of interesting comments here.

    Jilli, I am glad you feel your manuscript reads better after a good butchering. Most do. It is quite refreshing, yes?

    Anonymous 1, I don't really like Hemingway either, but he is the most obvious example of pared down prose.

    LizX, there is nothing wrong with lots of words, assuming they are the right ones. If they develop plot, character and/or atmosphere then fine. If they are actually redundant then I think they can be a problem.

    Gefordson, submitting yourself to that level of editing at this stage could save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

    Anonymous 2, I am not sure editors do take word count too seriously. It isn't the actual number, it is how they are used. I focused on 'too many words' in my blog post to illustrate the overwriting point.

    Anonymous 3, I assume the novel you are quoting from is romantic historical fiction? I am sure it is possible to recreate Regency England in more than one style and yours may well fit the bill. Although 'Her porcelain skin was pale'? Would porcelain skin be anything other than pale?

  9. jIn response to Scott: Yes, your point about 'overwriting' is very valid, but my point that it is the job of an editor to help a writer take their wonderful story and make it publishable is even more important.

    An editor's job is to find great material, and to subsequently coax the best writing from the author 'nicht vahr'?

  10. Also, an acknowledgment that different genre will elicit different levels of descriptive writing. Yes, I cringe at Agatha's prose as compared with John Sanford, as one example, but some writing is meant to be poetic and lyrical, perhaps at the expense of wordiness and lack of paucity of adjectives and adverbs.

    Everyone has different tastes. Your job is especially hard because you can't let yourself concentrate in one preferred style for fear of missing the commercial book in another.

  11. Overall I agree that cutting is good. I've agonised over killing my darlings - but have always been happy that I wielded the knife. The main thing though is to be true to yourself. My MA tutor and I had healthy discussions and she was generally right. However, sometimes I just knew that I knew best. It's important to listen to your own voice while being ruthless where you need to be. I always knew what I had to do, even though I tried to kid myself!


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