When I first began writing I was eager and ready to learn about the craft. I subscribed to a couple writing magazines and bought a few books on writing with the hopes of finding the secret formula to becoming a good writer. I learned quickly there is no one magic formula. Every writer is different and what works for one will not work for another. Despite this fact, there is a lot of good information out there for writers to consider when trying to improve on their writing skills.
A few years ago I read On Writing by Stephen King and came to the part on a revision formula passed on to him by an editor. It was 1st Draft - 10% = 2nd Draft. At first I was excited. There was an actual formula and it was deceptively simple. If you have an 80,000 word story you cut 8,000 words. The math loving part of my brain readily latched onto it but my creative brain didn't understand it at all and was horrified. How am I suppose to cut 10% of my story and still have the story I want to tell? It would take much longer for me to grow as a writer before I could understand this formula and effectively utilize it.
A little further into the book, King relates a humorous anecdote that has stuck with me. He was relaying a conversation he was having with his wife as she was reading a first draft of one of his novels. It was in regards to a couple pages of the main character's back story that King thought were important and was defending them to his wife. Her response was, "But you don't have to bore me with it, do you?" The two pages of back story were cut to two paragraphs.
Boring readers is what every author wants to avoid and that little anecdote is always there in the back of my mind. When writing my novel, Entangled, I had a couple instances where I was going to write more than what was needed for the story. In one scene, Sonya just received a search warrant to obtain bank records of a suspect. I had written two sentences leading into a scene about her going to the bank when I stopped. I started asking myself questions. Does anything happen at the bank other than getting the records? No. Is going to the bank a critical scene in moving the story forward. No. What is important? Finding if the bank records hold any important information. Then that's the part we need to get to. That is the part readers want to know, not what it is like to go to a bank. They already know that. I would be boring them and slowing the pace of the story.
Another scene involved a flashback with Connor. It was his fifteenth birthday and he receives a rifle as a present. He is angry about the gift and assumes it was his father's idea. Connor is shocked to learn that it was his mother's idea to get him the gun because he knows she hates guns. I was going to elaborate on her dislike of guns by talking about the gun safe, her disagreements with his father over having guns, her fears for the children getting injured, etc. I simply left it at, "She hates guns." There were a lot of different emotions going on in the scene culminating with the shock that the gun was his mom's idea. If I would have gone on and elaborated I would have watered down the emotional impact of the scene. I had to trust the readers would understand the conflict the mother would've had in getting the gun for her son and let the readers, along with Connor, feel the full impact of what it was she valued more than her principles.
Over time and with much practice, I have grown to understand the formula to be one of conciseness. For most writers, especially beginners, overwriting is a normal part of the process as we work our way through our story's first draft. While I don't calculate the amount of words that I need to drop, I am always looking for places where I can be more concise. Many times it is the case of less is more when it comes to emotional impact of scenes, better dialogue, and quickening the pace of the story. I find the more confident I become as a writer and the more I trust my readers, the easier it is to do the cutting.
If you happen to have the chance, check out Writer's Digest September 2015 issue. It focuses on revision. The article "Reader is my Copilot" by Marie Lamba gives good examples of what I have mentioned in this post in much more detail. "The Great Revision Pyramid" by Gabriela Pereira is also a good article on how to approach revision by seeing your story in layers.