Okay, before we get onto the nitty gritty of editing it’s probably a good idea to consider what we need and what we don’t. If I was to take you through all the aspects to consider when editing it would probably be a very long article indeed so let’s break it up.
One of the first things I think needs to be considered when editing is the idea of what the reader needs to know in the circumstance. To look at it one way, if you’re writing a novel you’ve got seventy-odd-thousand words or more to spread out everything you want to tell the reader about your characters. However, if you’re writing a short piece they might not even need to know it at all. This isn’t to say you can’t put all this stuff in a first draft, a first draft is a bit like the basecoat on a wall giving you a good foundation to paint your mural, so it can be full of extra bits you don’t need. To take for example the first draft of Hysteria was about five hundred words more than the edited version that appears on the site.
Personally, as a writer that doesn’t plan, I find putting this stuff in a first draft helps me work out who my characters are, their little tics and habits and other things. However, when it comes to editing sometimes I have to admit that it either slows the pace down or is simply too much information. There’s only so much information the human brain can process before it becomes bored and we don’t want that if we want someone to get to the end of our story.
When I’ve been working on longer fiction, like novels, there are times where I’ve had to admit entire chapters are simply not working because they repeat information, have got too far from the point, or slow down the action too much and I’ve had to cut them. I wish I didn’t have to but I have to be strict with myself otherwise, in some cases, I might start going on forever.
So, what is necessary? Well, that largely depends on your writing style, your characters and your story. For an obvious instance, in the middle of an action scene you don’t want to go off on a tangent about how your protagonist doesn’t like apples, especially if your story has nothing to do with apples. However, later on you might have a scene where the character is presented with an apple and you might want to mention that they hate them and maybe why that is. In that case it’s often finding the right place for the right information, perhaps you mention it early on in your first draft then realise when you’re editing that reveal would work much better in chapter forty.
It’s not only your protagonist’s back story that needs reigning in and carefully spreading it’s the supporting characters too (there’ll be an entire article on them coming up). Sometimes we need to consider how important a role they play and how much time we need to devote to them. Now obviously we want all our characters to appear to have lives beyond the story but how much do we need to know about those lives? In most stories if a character only appears in a chapter or two then it might be safe to say that they don’t need pages and pages about them to show who they are. If Donald’s only here to wait table in this chapter, do we need to know he spends every Saturday practicing with his band? If it is a Saturday and he’s missed practice for the extra hours at work maybe, but if not then probably not.
I can’t give you a definitive answer for exactly what you do and don’t need in your story because that depends on how you are writing it. But, it is important to consider the story as a whole when referring to the amount of backstory you need. Sometimes, upon consideration, it will be a lot less than you expect, whereas other times you might find you need a bit more.
If you’re not sure yourself get someone else to read it then ask them to tell you about your character and their impressions which may give you a fair indicator of where you need to add and subtract. For instance did they work out too early on your hero’s dark secret? Or did they see the murderer way too far in front of your detective? Or did something completely surprise and confuse them that wasn’t supposed to?
As always I would suggest experimentation to find how much information works best. You’ll find, overall, that as you develop as a writer and practice editing you’ll be able to tell instinctively what is too much or too little for the story you’re writing. Don’t worry if you don’t feel you’re there yet, effective editing takes time to develop and what you consider good editing is not always the same for someone else. This is all part of what makes your work individually yours not somebody else’s.