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Cut It Down, Flesh It Out!
by Kathryn Lay

When an editor told me that I needed to expand parts of my short story, but I also needed to cut 300 words from the length to fit their word count, I felt frustrated, then worried that I could not do it.

I worked hard on following the editor’s advice to cut my 900 word story down to 600, adding the details she suggested, and then cutting it back again to the required 600 words. Not only was I amazed that I could do it, I was thrilled with the results. The learning gained by following the editor’s suggestions was as beneficial as the ultimate sale of ‘Cave-a-Phobia’ to Spider. Understanding the need to ‘cut it down and flesh it out’ has helped me in similar novel rewrite situations with my agent, as well as nonfiction articles that held too much information and not enough detail in needed areas.


Look for unnecessary detail that doesn’t move the action along. It’s not easy to get rid of words you’ve worked hard to put into a piece, especially if that story or article is short to begin with. Often you will find that there is detail that is redundant or not necessary to this particular story or article. Are your sentences too long and wordy? Can you say it just as well using shorter words? Read your writing aloud. Does it flow or do you stumble in areas? Those stumbling blocks can usually be deleted. Perhaps you can use extra nonfiction facts in another piece.

In my middle-grade humor novel, recently sold to HOLIDAY HOUSE, King of Fifth Grade, my agent wisely pointed out in various places that I had stated and restated a point several times. Was I trying to convince myself in the believability of this idea or was I afraid the reader needed it stated again and again? I found that I actually enjoyed cutting those ‘telling’ sentences and fleshing out the showing of my character’s intentions, motivations, and beliefs.


In ‘Cave-A-Phobia,’ my editor asked me to ‘flesh out the descriptions of the sights the boys see and the wonders of the cave.’ I agreed that this would make the story more interesting and had to cut out some of the clever dialogue I had included. Her insights were specific and helpful.

"What is sparkling above when everyone turns on the flashlights? What’s the cave painting like? Aren’t cave crickets albino? Could we have a brief description of them? And why is the rear such an important position in cave exploration?"

These were a lot of questions to answer. Once I’d cut those extra 300 words from the piece, I needed to answer her questions, then cut it back again. Surprisingly, I found that I was able to include this information in one or two words or a short sentence.

In working with a larger piece, such as my novel, I found that ‘fleshing it out’ meant adding much more to the plot, dialogue, action, and characterizations.Was my story problem clear? Was my main character’s motivations realistic and did he react to those around him or to situations I had thrown him into? Did I need to internalize more in some areas or include dialogue to pep up areas that had none? Were my scenes set up well and did I draw them out, or rush in and out without milking the scene?

In nonfiction I’ve found that sometimes I’ve needed to flesh out an area by adding a sidebar. A fiction story that I sold to Listen, concerning a bulimic girl, was expanded by including a sidebar on recognizing friends with this problem as well as websites to explore the issue.When working on expanding your short fiction or nonfiction, don’t pad for word count’s sake. Make sure that each word you use is important to the story.Otherwise, you’ll be whipping out that delete key and ‘cutting’ once again.

Writing for kids means writing tight and taut, without losing plot, character, scene, or story. ‘Cut it down and flesh it out’ is often heard now during my critique meetings. We may laugh about it, but we all know that it’s serious business, creating the perfect story, article, or book for a young reader.

A snip here. An additional word, phrase, or scene there.

Writing is rewriting.

Don’t be afraid. It isn’t as painful as it seems, and the result is a good piece of writing.

© Copyright 2003, Kathryn Lay

Kathryn Lay is the author of 26 books for children, over 2000 articles, essays and stories for children and adults and the book from AWOC.COM Publishing, The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer. Check out her website at www.kathrynlay.com and email through rlay15@aol.com

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