The biggest surprise of my writing life was the discovery that editing a magazine of journalism and essays developed my fiction writing technique and muscles. Editing a print magazine required cutting articles to size, and cutting to size (copyfitting) required a constant focus on the necessity of individual words: was that adjective necessary, could we lose the paragraph break, had the point been made earlier in the article and therefore it could be cut in the second instance?

Since leaving the magazine business, I’ve been a freelance editor (books, blogs, etc.). And in my experience, I’ve found that most people overwrite. I have the opposite problem: I underwrite. How do you know which way you err?

First, don’t worry about it until you finish a whole manuscript. If you try to self-edit while you are birthing, you’ll paralyze yourself. Just write. But after your manuscript (anything from a bio to a book) is complete, after you’ve put it aside for a day, a few weeks, a month, or however long it takes you to return to objectivity, read it like an editor. Even better, read it out loud like an editor. Or any time you get bored or confused, read it out loud like an editor.

How do you know you are underwriting?

You are underwriting if your logical line falls apart:

  • You forget who’s talking. Do you know who “she” refers to in that sentence, or is the referent so distant from the pronoun that you’ve lost the reference?
  • There is no logical bridge from one thought to another. This can be tricky, because the best writing doesn’t always spell out such transitions. They can work without being said—like synapses in the brain. But if the thought in one sentence/paragraph doesn’t have a synapse to the next sentence, you need to fill in the logic. This can sometimes happen if you jump from one chronological point to future or past points rather than telling a story in a more linear time sequence, breaking down the time sequence and giving each event the time it needs. (But not always: See the Maggie O’Farrell example following this section.) [Notice: I jumped ahead in time within this article by inserting the time jump in a parenthetical sentence to make the logic easier to follow.]

You are underwriting if you have no visual:

  • Have you “set the scene”—do you know what a place looks like, what the people look like? If not, fill it in.

You may be underwriting if you’re bored from a monotonous rhythm:

  • Writing is like music. If your piece drones, never varying the rhythm or pitch, you need to introduce something to surprise the reader and yourself. However, it must be logical (overtly or subliminally).

One of the best examples of all of the above done well—neither underwriting, nor overwriting (discussed in the next section)—is Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I Am, I Am, I Am. O’Farrell is a master of transitions that hold logically even as they syncopate the rhythm. Her characters are vivid and multi-dimensional, and her prose is music. She is daring but never muddled in her ability, done often in her fiction, to change voices (for instance, from first person to third) or, as in the following case from her memoir, to make radical yet clear time leaps, while still maintaining leisurely attention to detail.

The following describes a childhood event when O’Farrell ran away from home:

I got as far as the crossroads, which was the perimeter of my solitary world, as far as I was allowed to go alone. We would loiter here, on occasion [Notice: she has backtracked in time within the childhood event], for my father to come home from work if we had important news to impart: the death of a pet fish, the arrival of a visitor, the time my sister leapt off the sofa and hit her nose on the edge of the bookcase and had to go to the hospital for stitches (she bears a scar to this day [Notice: this transitions to future adulthood by putting the extreme jump in parentheses].

[And back to the current childhood event time] I was hesitating here, watching the cars go by, engaged with an internal debate as to whether the event of my leaving home meant I was now outside such rules as never to cross this junction, when my mother caught up with me. She had run from the house in her apron and her face was distraught. For a moment, as I saw her bearing down on me, I thought she was angry, that I was in terrible trouble. But she caught me in a close, enveloping embrace, and murmured, “Don’t go, don’t go,” into my hair.

I will be reminded of this moment when, almost two decades later [Effortless time jump to future], I say goodbye to her as I’m leaving for Hong Kong. We’re on a platform of the local station . . .

(I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, p. 41)

It is so easy to make a complete mess with this kind of time jumping. Studying O’Farrell is equivalent to taking a master class in how to do it clearly and logically.

What to do when you know you are overwriting?

If you do this, you do what the majority of writers do and it’s time to learn the joy of cutting. As I mentioned in the introduction, when I worked at a magazine, I copyfitted (made the text fit the allotted space in a print magazine), and what I didn’t mention is that invariably the process improved the writing. Skilled cutting causes energy changes—spikes, sparkling, dramatic tension, humor, etc.—that you may feel viscerally. You may sweat from it. This is a good thing.

Types of cutting:

  • All unnecessary words—in that clause, I could cut the word “all.” It’s inherent. Here’s a common mistake: “I put my own hands on the box.” Unless there is another character who might own the hands, cut the word “own.” If you can understand the sense of the sentence without a word, cut it.
  • Labored text—a paragraph or sentence you’ve slaved over and are in love with, but every time you get to it, the energy seems to die. Cut it out and see what happens.
  • Illogical points—sometimes simply cutting, rather than trying to twist something into being logical, solves both energy and logic problems.

Here is a trick from my magazine editing days. It does not really apply to books, unless your manuscript is 120,000 words and really needs to go down to 60,000 to 90,000 to fit what’s customary. But it is a trick, so you can use it for anything: a short story, an essay, a bio.

When one copy fits text for a print magazine, you literally get it to fit the space allotted for the piece. You work on a layout (designed magazine page), and the easiest way to find cuts is to look for paragraphs with short last lines. Then go into the body of each paragraph with a short last line and look for words to cut to bring the last line up. When you work like this, you need to first switch from reading to looking at shapes of paragraphs—in other words, pictures of text. Try to find as many paragraphs as you can with short last lines and, with little word cuts, bring them up. You will be amazed by how much tighter the writing is. You’ll be amazed by what you can suddenly see is unnecessary. And it’s fun!

[Notice: the transition from the previous paragraph to the next one; it changes the rhythm and surprises with something new:]

There are many writers who consider John Williams’s Stoner a perfect novel. (To hear their passion, watch the documentary The Act of Becoming, available for rent on Vimeo, featuring Steve Almond, Morris Dickstein, John Doyle, Edwin Frank, Anna Gavalda, Netta Gurevitch, Tim Kreider, Mel Livatino, Colum McCann, Robin Robertson, Oscar Van Gelderen, Dan Wakefield.) One of the reasons this story of a teacher named William Stoner is so perfect is that not only does it tell an iconic human journey, but it does the impossible:

In a mere 278 pages, Williams manages to write an evolution of time and character that is epic and almost mythological in its simplicity. The economy of the writing paradoxically creates a massive undertow of drama and contained emotion. The build of the plot and a whole lifetime of change contained in this book is a lesson to all writers on how to simply tell a story. No tricks. No showing off. Pure, insanely brilliant writing.

Williams almost never tells you what somebody feels; instead he piles on facts, making time flow in what feels like the most organic way but which is in fact sped up so that years can pass in a paragraph. The pressure of the facts creates deep emotions in the reader.

Because of the steady accrual of narrative, it is impossible to pull a quote that conveys the whole experience. But here is a short, often quoted, paragraph from near the end of Stoner’s life:

            There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been. (Stoner by John Williams, New York Review of Books, 1965, p. 277)

            In 43 words, the experience of death and realization!

Betsy Robinson writes funny fiction about flawed people. Her novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg is winner of Black Lawrence Press’s 2013 Big Moose Prize and was published in September 2014. This was followed by the February 2015 publication of her edit of The Trouble with the Truth by Edna Robinson, Betsy’s late mother, by Simon & Schuster/Infinite Words. She recently published revised ebook and paperback editions of her Mid-List Press award-winning first novel, a tragicomedy about falling down the rabbit hole of the U.S. of A. in the 1970s, Plan Z by Leslie Kove. Her articles have been published in Publishers Weekly, Lithub, Writing Bad, Oh Reader, Lit Mag Roundup. Betsy is an editor, fiction writer, journalist, and playwright. Her website is