There’s a reason it’s a good idea to not show anyone early drafts, and that’s because it’s usually full of writing that should be cut.
And these cuts aren’t darlings—writing that’s good but doesn’t fit with the story—they’re the parts of your MS that will make it stronger once you’ve removed them.
They are the weak words that sneak in and clutter up your sentences, the passages that water down your reveals, the ideas that helped you get those early drafts written, but should now be taken out. Cuts such as…
1) The Repeats
The repeats are words you use excessively. Usually to the point you don’t even know you’re doing it until it’s pointed out by a well-intentioned beta reader (or three or four). The word “That” is high on my repeats lists, as are “Realized” and “Surprise”. In early drafts, my characters are always realizing things and finding themselves surprised. If you have just
realized noticed you have the same issue, put together a repeat list and use your find and replace function to make cuts.
2) The Author Guide
Early drafts are perfect for working out the story. That’s one of their main purposes; to take that nugget of an idea and turn it into a full-blown book. When you’re piecing together that jigsaw, the first person you need to tell that story to is yourself.
I’m sure if you look closely at your first few drafts, you’ll find the same ideas repeated throughout, similar reveals in different chapters, sometimes even the same backstory said in different ways popping up all over the place. These instances happen when you’re working out the plot. It’s your first-draft-self giving future-draft-you a guide for how the story should play out. You need to know those things to finish the adventure. But once the guide is in place, you need to cut up the roadmap that got you there.
Look for the places where you dropped the same backstory, character description, setting, foreshadowing and anything else that gives the same info again and again and study each instance. Decide what was written better and where it should be placed in the plot for maximum impact, and delete the rest.
3) Dialogue Tags
Not all dialogue tags need to be cut, but if you spent your early draft typing “he/she said” after every sentence of speech, it’s time to learn how much cleaner your draft can be by removing some of your dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are perfect for making it clear who is talking, especially in scenes with more than two characters, but they can also clutter up your early drafts with unnecessary words. If it’s obvious who is speaking, or you can throw in an action beat instead of using “he said” for the twentieth time, give that a try instead.
You won’t catch all the typos with just one round of cuts, in fact, every edit you make will only see you adding more typos. Get into the habit of finding typos with every read through, starting from your early drafts, and you will keep the problem under as much control as you can. Hopefully, by the time your draft goes to betas, there’ll only be a few typos for them to catch.
5) Non-Character Voice
Writing in a way that puts the reader inside the character’s head, making them feel what the MC feels is no easy feat. It’s a skill that takes many drafts to master. That’s why your early drafts are bound to be littered with paragraphs that come from a voice that isn’t your characters.
If any section of your book sounds like an instruction manual rather than a real person, or if a piece of dialogue is so generic any character could have said it, it’s not coming from the character voice. In early drafts that might be because you were still working things out and didn’t know your characters well enough yet. Find those instances and cut them, replacing them with the character voice you’ve found now you’re a few drafts in.
Once you’ve mastered show, don’t tell, it’s easy to spot what areas of your writing are being told instead of shown. Also just as easy was writing those sections as tells in your first draft. You might be under a deadline, or so inspired to get everything down it’s easier to tell now and show later. Either way, your early draft is a tell-fest, and you need to insert some show to make it better. Look for those occurrences, cut, rewrite, and turn your telling paragraphs into an imagery-inducing delight.
Staging is my nemesis, and it wasn’t until I was at least 18 drafts in on my current WIP that I discovered just how much I was doing it. Staging is those passages of text where you think it’s a good idea to detail Every. Single. Movement. A character crossing a room, a character getting out of their car, specifying the left hand picked up a glass, stating exactly where all the characters are standing/sitting/taking a breath. Unless is it necessary to the plot that the reader knows it’s a five-step stroll from the MC’s living room to the kitchen, cut it. Yes, the reader needs an idea of where characters are positioned in a scene and what they’re doing, but they don’t need all the details in between.
8) The Placeholders
Can’t think of a decent name for a character or location in your novel? Stuck on the bridging scene between two action-packed plot twists and decided two filler sentences would do? Have you ever noted “add more here” and left it at that? These placeholders are a rite of passage when writing an early draft and should always be on your list of cuts to replace with more detail. So flesh out your sentences and properly name your characters, because even in a fantasy novel, “NameLater” isn’t a good moniker.
I’ve had to make all of these cuts in early drafts, and if you’ve recognized any of them in your own WIP, try removing and/or rewriting and you should find that you’ve got yourself a stronger draft. After that, you’ll still need copious amounts of edits, chocolate sacrifices to your muse, and to overcome self-doubt to create a finished draft, but that’s a problem for future-draft-you.
— K.M. Allan