Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sitting down to knock out a 140,000 word novel can be a daunting task. That blank page stares back at you, the emptiness only emphasized by the impatient flashing of the type tool. But, once you get stuck in, the words usually start to flow easily, and that word counter gets higher and higher, until… Oh. You’re way over that 140,000 limit already, and you’re only halfway through the story. Oops!
Sometimes, the initial fear of a seemingly unreachable goal can make us overextend to achieve it. But, having too many words to work with is a much more manageable problem than having too few. The process of cutting a bloated manuscript down to the desired size is more clinical than creative, and like any clinical procedure, it may be messy, but the end result should leave your work healthier and in better shape.
In this guide, I’ll take you through some of the ways you can cut down your manuscript – on both a micro, word-by-word and macro, chapter-by-chapter level.
Cut unnecessary scenes
Every scene in your book should matter. Therefore, when you’re trying to reduce your word count, weigh up the value of every scene as you go through your manuscript. Ask yourself whether, if the scene was gone, the outcome of the story would be the same. If so, it should probably go.
Cut down on glue words
What’s a ‘glue word’? Here’s a definition, courtesy of Pro-Writing Aid.
Glue words are the 200 or so most common words in English (excluding the personal pronouns). Glue words are generally used to link nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Almost every document could benefit from a reduction in the number of glue words.
Sentences containing high numbers of glue words are known as ‘sticky sentences’. You can usually spot them by their length – a sentence that uses ten words where five would do. Usually, those extra words are the ones which are over-used in the English language, making for pretty uninteresting sentences that really drag. Here’s an example of a sticky sentence.
The small, golden-feathered bird swooped down from a great height in order to pluck its unfortunate prey from the ground and eat it.
Now, here’s the same sentence ’unstuck’.
The miniature bird swooped down to eat its prey.
Both describe the same thing, but one gets to the point a lot faster. I did choose to keep the description of the bird’s size, but swapped it for a less common adjective. Use your own judgement to decide which words can stay and which need to go.
Cut down on dialogue tags
Get rid of as many “I/She/He said” tags as you can without confusing the reader over who is speaking. Conversations between characters should flow as smoothly as possible, and too many tags impede this.
Look out for superfluous dialogue tags after an action beat too, like in this example.
She shook her head at him wearily. ”I know,” she said.
Cut down on dialogue fillers
These are words and sounds like, ‘er’ and ‘um’. The inclusion of these little bridges between ‘real’ words reflect the natural way most people speak, but the reader won’t miss them, and they aren’t compelling. Pay similar attention to pauses and your use of ellipsis (…). We pause a lot as we speak, and it can add drama, but most of the time it just comes off as unnecessary and melodramatic.Does that piece of dialogue really need an ellipsis? I’m guessing... no.Click To Tweet
Cut down on dialogue length
Does your character beat around the bush? Unless they’re defined as a perpetual procrastinator or wordsmith, there’s no reason why they should be taking up a valuable paragraph to say what could be said in one sentence. Plus, most people aren’t especially verbose in real life. After all, intellect is best shown through brevity.
Cut any description that says the same thing twice
You rarely need to give the reader the same information twice. For example:
His eyes were blue like the ocean; like a clear, summer sky.
Remember that golden, ‘less is more’ rule, and make sure you’re also applying it to your dialogue.
Break your manuscript down into sections
Splitting your manuscript into smaller chunks will make the job feel much easier. Work on a section at a time in whatever order you fancy to make the work feel like less of a slog. How you break your manuscript down, and how small the segments are, is up to you, but you could:
- Split it by act. Tally up the total number of words in each act (you’ll most likely have three or four). Ideally, your book’s total word count should be fairly evenly split across each. It doesn’t have to be exact, but if one or more sections are taking up more space than the others, you’ll know where to focus most of your cuts.
- Split it by chapter. Either split the entire book or the number of chapters in each act and apply the same technique as above.
Cut down subplots
Are there any subplots that can be considerably shortened or even axed without impacting too much on the main story? I know, it’s a tough one, but if you’re desperate to cut the count, get ruthless.
Cut down side characters
In the same vein, are there any extra side characters that your story could live without, or feature less of? Could you combine side characters? It’s another tough choice, but you might have to spill a little blood to get results.
Cut recapping scenes
Are there any scenes where you have characters just standing around explaining or recapping the plot to the reader? Or just spouting exposition? These should probably go, or else be folded into other, necessary scenes.Minor scenes and characters can be combined to cut words and enhance the story.Click To Tweet
If in doubt, get help
It’s unlikely that you’ve written a perfect manuscript comprised of purely essential content, so even if you’re not that much over your desired word count, your manuscript could probably still benefit from the micro and macros cuts I’ve suggested.
Still feeling stuck? Get some inspiration from some economically written novels you enjoy. What books have you read and liked that get the balance right? Another solution is to bring in external help – hire an editor, if you don’t already have one, or consult an alpha reader. They’ll not only help you make the ruthless edits, but hopefully help you set a realistic, achievable word count.
For more on making word count, check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor. Or, if you’re trying to work out your ideal word count, try How Long Should Your Book Be? The Complete Guide.