One of the hardest things about writing is identifying when you need to add material and when you need subtract material. Even small additions or subtractions can make a very big difference to the overall success of a piece of writing. Here are a few tips to help you decide whether you need to add or subtract some material.
Every piece of writing has a purpose. For an essay, it might be making a particular point about a subject. For a chapter in a story, it might be covering an important plot point or introducing a new character. Always ask: what purpose is this piece of writing trying to achieve and would adding or subtracting material help fulfil that purpose?
For example, if an essay is discussing the viability of trade sanctions as replacements for military intervention in a particular conflict, then adding more material about what sectors of the economy are most vulnerable to sanctions may be valuable.
Consider another example. If a chapter of a story is designed to introduce several important new characters, then it makes little sense to complicate the chapter by adding a lot of minor details about the world the story is set in. However, adding more character interaction may be a good idea, especially if those interactions have a bearing on the plot in the future.
Does The Pacing Work?
Rhythm and pacing are important in writing. This applies both in fiction and in other forms of writing like essays. If the material you want to add slows down what you’ve already written and breaks the flow of the writing without adding something very important (i.e., essential), then you might want to leave it out. Likewise, if removing a section of what you’ve written improves the pacing and rhythm of the piece without losing essential information, then it might be for the best to cut it out.
Getting a grasp of the pacing and rhythm of a piece of writing can be tricky. For instance, it isn’t always clear that a story lags in certain places until the whole story is done. Likewise, it can be hard to see that an essay is getting bogged down without finishing it. If it isn’t clear whether or not the pacing and rhythm work, then try finishing the piece of writing first.
Keep Only What Is Necessary
Every piece of writing has certain components that are absolutely essential for it to function. If something is too long, the easiest approach is to simply start removing anything that isn’t essential. For example, if a chapter introduces a number of characters that aren’t essential to the plot and do not appear again, consider removing them or incorporating their roles into existing characters. Likewise, if an essay is too long, look at what facts must be presented to support your argument and focus on using those to put together the tightest argument that you can.
A good way to check if something is necessary is to remove it and then see if the piece of writing still makes sense. If it does, then what you’ve cut probably isn’t necessary and can be removed. Note that this approach can be overenthusiastic, but it is arguably the easiest way to reduce the length of a piece of writing.
Is It In The Right Place?
Sometimes the hardest part about adding more material is identifying where to put it. Even the correct material can look wrong when put in the wrong place.
A good example of this is what happens if you shoehorn all of the details of a character’s history into one chapter. This can overwhelm the reader and leave them feeling lost. Instead, it’s better to spread out these details, introducing them as they become relevant. For instance, if a character is a master swordsman, you don’t need to tell everyone that until they get into a fight. Similarly, if a character’s favourite colour is blue, you don’t need to introduce that information until they have to pick one cloak out of several others.
In the case of an essay or more formal piece writing, introducing the correct information at the correct time is essential. Adding huge amounts of material can work and feel quite natural if that material is added in a sensible way, such as when the arguments involving that material are proposed. For example, if you want to discuss the impact of a free trade agreement, then it makes sense to break that discussion down into categories and add more detailed material in each different section.
Work On Phrasing And Structuring Things Right
There are times when the issue isn’t whether something should be added or subtracted but whether what you already have is correctly phrased and structured. If a piece of writing is very badly phrased and structured, it can seem overly long. But rather than cutting out material, it may make more sense to rewrite what you have, phrasing and structuring things better. In a similar way, phrasing and structuring things better can remove the need to add more material by making what is there easier to comprehend.
Perhaps the best example of this is in essay writing. The difference between good essays and great essays is often not in the material they introduce – it’s in how they structure and present their arguments and evidence. This isn’t to say that content doesn’t matter, but phrasing and structure can ensure that you get the most out of that content.
Adding or subtracting from a piece of writing can be a tricky thing, but it can also be quite beneficial. Don’t be afraid to tinker, and always ask yourself: does adding, subtracting, or rephrasing/restructuring result in a better piece of writing?
If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.
I also write original fiction, mostly fantasy. You can find that here.