The Final Cuts

By Mark Alpert

I’d like to share a foolproof writing tip. It can be applied to any genre of fiction, and it works for nonfiction as well. It’s a tip for perfecting your latest manuscript. More precisely, it’ll make your manuscript even better than perfect.

At first glance, this kind of advice might seem a little ridiculous. In fact, it reminds me of comedian Steve Martin’s famous advice about how to make a million dollars tax-free.

Do you remember the joke? Here’s the step-by-step advice:

  1. Make a million dollars.
  2. When it comes time to pay your taxes, just don’t do it.
  3. When the IRS asks why you didn’t pay your taxes, just say, “I forgot.”
  4. When the IRS asks how you could forget such a thing, just say, “Well, excuuuuuse me!”

Okay, now here’s my strategy for making a manuscript even better than perfect:

  1. Make your manuscript perfect. (That is, do everything you can to improve it. Get feedback from anyone willing to read the thing. Revise and revise and revise.)
  2. Make the final cuts. Get rid of at least ten percent of the words.
  3. You’ll probably think, “Wait, I already made the manuscript perfect! It can’t get any better!”
  4. Make the cuts anyway. Just pretend that an editor has said to you, “I’ll publish this book, but only if you can cut ten percent of the words.” Pore over the manuscript and get rid of ANYTHING that isn’t absolutely necessary.
  5. If you can’t trim at least ten percent of the word count, read the manuscript again. Are you sure you need all those adjectives? Do you really have to mention the color of the walls?
  6. Pay particular attention to the dialogue. In real-life conversations, people usually don’t go on and on. Keep it snappy.
  7. Once you’ve hit the ten-percent mark, try to keep cutting. You may get diminishing returns with each successive review of the manuscript, but it’s still worth doing.
  8. Now read the manuscript one more time after you’ve made the final cuts. It’s better, right?
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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

4 thoughts on “The Final Cuts

  1. My WIP came back to me from my editor…red everywhere! I’ve been working on her suggestions now for about a month. It went to her with 96,600 words. I applied your 10% suggestion just now.

    I’m giddy! I’ve already cut more than 10%!

    Maybe it’ll shine after all when it’s all done…:)

  2. Good advice, Mark. Most novels are too long, especially in the middle. As for cutting dialogue, I read mine aloud. If it sounds unnatural, it gets cut.

  3. Some writers don’t put enough words in. They may be prone to not giving enough description or physical action or whatever. If this is pointed out by beta readers or whover, you should add that step into your final checklist. All extra words aren’t evil.

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