Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 2. Content

Second element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)


All content and characters should have a story reason for being included in the book. If it doesn’t have a story reason, then delete it. Otherwise, it’s a needless distraction for the reader.

As Elmore Leonard famously advises in his 10 Rules of Writing, leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. His novel Hombre is an excellent example of this. If you haven’t read it, whether you like Westerns or not, this book offers a delightful example of tight writing, among other important aspects of storytelling. (Note: The Paul Newman movie leaves out the final chapter of the book.)

Extraneous information, either background or description:

  • Yuck: Pleased to see Lovejoy’s green truck parked in front of the tan stucco building with brown trim and a metal roof, Mattie pulled up and parked beside it.
    —begins sentence with a 21-word dependent clause (not recommended); 28 words total

     What’s the story reason for “green” truck and “tan stucco building with brown trim and a metal roof”? Answer: None. Those details had zero relevance to the story; they never come up again.

  • Fix: Mattie spotted Lovejoy’s truck and parked beside it.
    —8 words

I digress for a moment: Why spelling is important—“Mattie notices movement at the doorway. Cole peeked around the jam . . .”

The next sentence contains “blueberry.”

My diabolical mind envisioned a guy eating blueberry door jam. It yanked me out of the scene as if I’d been lassoed from a horse. Making it worse, this came just six pages from the end of the book, as the story approached its climax. You want your readers laughing with you, not at you.

Chapter titles: Should I give my chapters titles? Not unless you’re writing a textbook or a how-to book, or something similar.

Says you: But I want to give titles to my chapters!

Says I: OK, do it. But don’t use titles that are spoilers, that give away what the chapter is about. The whole point of fiction and memoir, and some narrative nonfiction, is to withhold certain facts from the reader as long as possible. That’s what keeps the reader turning pages: What’s going to happen next?

You’re not writing news copy for the Associated Press, or How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law . . . and Get Away With It.

If you do use titles, have them create an air of mystery or suspense to increase the curiosity of the reader. As they say in the comedy business, don’t deliver the punch line before the setup. If you want working titles to help remind yourself what each chapter is about, that’s fine, but change or delete them from your final draft.

Length: How long (or short) should my book be? Typical novel or memoir = 75,000 –85,000 words, or roughly 250–300 manuscript pages. As G.M. Ford says, I get paid the same whether I write 75,000 words or a 100,000 words.

Rule of thumb: Fewer than 100,000 words. Historical and science fiction tend to be longer because of “world building,” but even then try to keep it under 100,000. Especially if you want a traditional publishing deal.

I will address the subject of content in greater detail in the last part of this presentation: Kill Your Darlings.

Third in the series: Narrative Voice

About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- -- --
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2 Responses to Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 2. Content

  1. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision | Polishing Your Prose

  2. Pingback: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision — 1. Structure | Polishing Your Prose

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