Wednesday, April 7

Lighten Up! Cutting Down Your Word Count

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Cutting a novel down is a common headache (and heartache) for a lot of writers. So today, I offer my most practical tip for cutting out words.

Approach it on a page by page basis.

Cutting down a novel doesn't have to be a huge hack and slash deal. You don't have to rip your baby to shreds. In fact, hacking away whole scenes often hurts the novel more than helps, because you're killing the story, not the extra words. What you want to do is get rid of the words that aren't helping your story. Or the words you can live without, even if it's good writing.

It can be daunting though. Hearing "cut 10,000 words out of your novel" can make you want to curl up in a ball. But let's look at what that really means...

"Long" novels are most often ones that are 120,000+ words. A 120,000 word novel is roughly 480 pages (based on the traditional 250 words per page format). You can cut 4800 words if you cut just ten words per page. That's one sentence in most cases. Cut twenty words per page at you've practically hit you 10K mark. Twenty words is nothing. A 150,000 word novel? 600 pages, and 6000 or 12,000 words gone. Cut thirty words--18,000 words down.

Don't believe me? For funsies, I'm going to post a full page (page three I think) of my own novel, The Shifter, and then cut it. Now, keep in mind that this is a printed, published book that has been edited dozens of times. You'd think I wouldn't be able to cut it any more, right? But I can and I will.

This is 224 words to start, so lets go down to 214, then 204. The words I can cut I'll mark in purple.
“So, Heclar,” he said over his shoulder, “you do have a thief. Guess I was wrong.”

Rancher Heclar strutted into view, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the chicken trying to peck me—ruffled, sharp beaked, and beady eyed. He harrumphed and set his fists against his hips. “I told you crocodiles weren’t getting them.”

“I’m no chicken thief,” I said quickly.

“Then what’s that?” The night guard flicked his rapier tip toward the chicken and smiled again. Friendlier this time, but his deep brown eyes had twitched when he bent his wrist.

“A chicken.” I blew a stray feather off my chin and peered closer. His knuckles were white from too tight a grip on so light a weapon. That had to mean joint pain, maybe even knuckleburn, though he was far too young for it. The painful joint infection usually hit older dockworkers. I guess that’s why he had a crummy job guarding chickens instead of aristocrats. My luck hadn’t been too great either.
Hey, guess what? This makes ten words already. Did it change the story any? Nope.

Going page by page is a time-consuming job for sure, but it does force you to look at each page and evaluate it for what it says. You'd be surprised how easy it is to tighten when you only have to cut a measly ten or twenty words out. Take it page by page and you'll find those words falling off without too much pain.

Now let's do it again with another ten words.
“So, Heclar,” he said, “you do have a thief. Guess I was wrong.”

Rancher Heclar strutted into view, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the chicken trying to peck me—ruffled, sharp beaked, and beady eyed. He harrumphed and set his fists against his hips. “I told you crocodiles weren’t getting them.”

“I’m no chicken thief,” I said quickly.

“Then what’s that?” The night guard flicked his rapier tip toward the chicken and smiled again. Friendlier this time, but his deep brown eyes had twitched when he bent his wrist.

“A chicken.” I blew a stray feather off my chin and peered closer. His knuckles were white from too tight a grip on so light a weapon. That had to mean joint pain, maybe even knuckleburn, though he was far too young for it. The painful joint infection usually hit older dockworkers. I guess that’s why he had a crummy job guarding chickens instead of aristocrats.

“Look,” I said, “I wasn’t going to steal her. She was blocking the eggs.”

The night guard nodded like he understood and turned to Heclar.

“She’s just hungry. Maybe you could let her go with a warning?”

“Arrest her you idiot! She’ll get fed in Dorsta.”

Dorsta? I gulped. “Listen, two eggs for breakfast is hardly worth prison—”

This makes twelve more. Twenty-two total. Twenty-two words per page times 480 pages is 10,560 words.

See how easy that was? Did I take out some good lines--sure, but the overall page didn't change and the story and scene stayed intact. And if I really love those lines, I can mark them in color and come back afterward to see if I still need to cut them.
Granted, some pages will be harder to trim that others, especially if you have a lot of dialog on a page and not a lot of words. But often you'll get more than twenty words on a page, and that'll compensate for the ones where you can't cut any more.

So, what do you look for?

Stage direction in tags is always a good place to start. There are frequently extra words there you can get rid of without changing anything.

A repeated idea or thought can usually go. In this example, it was pretty clear Nya's luck was bad from the whole scene, so I didn't really need to say it there. It helped to establish her character, but if I had to trim out words, it was a line that nobody would miss.

Extra description. Like the chicken reference, a few implied words are often enough to give the reader the idea of what something looks like. Let them fill in the blanks so you can save the words.

Questioning themselves. Often a narrator will ask themselves what they should do or wonder about something. It usually reads a lot like them talking to themselves. More times than not, you can trim out these phrases or combine them so they use fewer words.
There are other ways you can trim as well, and I think this is a good place to link back to some previous post so we have a nice, handy cutting words guide. Not every editing job can be solved by just doing this, especially if the book is over 140K. So for those who need to really cut back...

An overview on slashing and burning, putting you in the mindset for hard editing.
Preposition patrol, and getting rid of extra words that can usually go.
Overstating things, which I covered some of here.
Infodump hiding in dialog, which helps identify when it's real or just for the reader's benefit.
The spit shine, a long list of words that can usually be cut, edited, or pinpoint frequently troublesome sentences.

20 comments:

  1. Janice, this was a great exercise! Thanks!
    I tend to have the opposite problem. I always need to go back in and bolster my pages with more descripions-- beef it up, if you will. Maybe a topic for a future post? I can't be the only one out here with that problem! ;-)

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  2. Great post! I know that I need to cut at least ten thousand from my novel and this will be really helpful when I get to that point. I love your writing tips. They always make the most perfect sense.

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  3. I wish I had this problem. Like Christina mentioned above - my writing always comes up sparse. I'm the type that needs to find a way to add 10,000+ words.

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  4. Since my first drafts are always way to long, any cutting advice is welcome. I'm getting better, but there's still that "those are my words and they're brilliant" mindset to overcome.

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  5. Greaat post. To tackle a long novel, I break it up in 50 page increments with the plan to complete the cuts in one month. Just looking for sentences that could be cut and using your word list of words to watch for, I've cut 1100 words from 111 pages in 5 days. I plan to cut 2000 words more from about 200 more pages and I know I will make my goal of cutting 3000 words. This was after cutting 6000 words in 3 weeks in December. So I know you're right. We can cut.

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  6. Love this post. I'm still on the "getting the words on the page" part, but I can see this being really helpful somewhere down the line.

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  7. Great post! I've been working on cutting down a couple of scenes, so this came at the perfect time. Isn't it amazing how a few words here and there can add up and make the text feel so much tighter?

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  8. I've heard the ten words a page line before, but you've given some very nice examples of how and why page-by-page cutting both reduces wordcount and strengthens a story.

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  9. Thanks for the advice, Janice. I'm doing a final polish and light rewrite and am trying to cut 10k from my BIG (190k word) Hel's Bet ms. I've been concentrating on cutting whole scenes but need to dive into every page.

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  10. Great exercise/example! It really illustrates your point well -- although you already had me sold on the numbers alone. Thanks!

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  11. Thanks guy, and more good tips from everyone! Christina, I could have sworn I did a post about bulking up, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I'm a sparse writer myself (I flesh out after), so I'll talk about that this week.

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  12. Another thing that helps is trimming garbage words and phrases like just, then, suddenly, for a moment. I used Find and Replace to highlight certain garbage words and managed to cut a good 1k out of an already short manuscript. I was surprised how much I used certain words and phrases and how many words I lost when I cut them out.

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  14. After reviewing a partial of my manuscript, an agent has expressed interest in reading more, but has advised me to see whether it is possible to reduce the size of my story - both the length of this book, and the proposed 5-book series (he is more interested in a trilogy).

    The book needs to be cut by approximate 40,000 words (it's clocking in at 198,000 for an epic fantasy).

    I think this is totally do-able, especially after all the wonderful advice I've read on this site!

    HOWEVER, one question that I do have: since word-count is traditionally calculated not using MS Word's 'word count' function, but a formula (# of double-spaced pages x 250), doesn't your word count ONLY drop if you're able to literally reduce pages from the manuscript, rather than random words here and there?

    Granted, by cutting 40,000 words, I will undeniably reduce pages - but for someone who has been asked to reduce by, say, 10,000 words, trimming a word or two from lines here and there might not have an overall impact on the # of pages (and thus the estimated word count).

    Or have I been misled, again?

    Thank you kindly,
    P

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  15. Paul, it's my understanding that most agents/editors now are using the word count rather than lines per page calculations.

    Others may have different information, but I've always used Word's feature when giving a word count. It's not going to be totally accurate (one publisher wants 5 asterisks separated by spaces to mark scene breaks, which Word will count as 9 words. But I don't think they're that nit-picky about exact counts.)

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  16. Paul, Terry's right. The 250 per page rule was when we all used typewriters with fixed width letters. These days that doesn't hold true anymore. (Though it's handy for a rough estimation of something)

    Use your word count feature for a basic count, round up to the nearest thousand. 134K, 73K, etc. Page counts will change at the publisher anyway depending on how they layout the book. The same size can actually be a little different in two separate fonts. Saban is larger than Centaur for example. (yep. this is my designer self coming out now)

    Trimming a word or two will indeed trim the pages if you have enough pages. But the overall count is more important. A scene of mostly dialog might be half the words of a page of description and internalization, but they both still count as a page.

    Bottomline, word count is used to show the general size of a manuscript. It's not exact. Think of it like bedrooms. A 1-bedroom house gives a different impression than a 6-bedroom house. You get the idea for the size, even if you don;t know the exact square feet.

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  17. Thank you so much for these responses - you've set my heart a little at ease! Based on the old rule, there was an 15,000 word count higher difference compared to what the 'word count' feature suggested.

    PS - I have already managed to trim 7000 words from my novel, and I'm just shy of a quarter of the way through. Thank you for all of these pointers!

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  18. Oh good :) Sounds like you're off to a good start. Best of luck with it ;)

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  19. Hi Janice,
    I just wanted to tell you that I found this post extremely helpful. I'm in a the process of trying to cut words from a piece I love that I hope to soon forward to a literary agent. Despite what happens (because I know the world of fiction writing can be tough) I at least want to go through this process for completion sake. However, I was having a truly tough time cutting words to get the word count down without compromising the story as you said above. Your exercise and helpful way of explaining is a tremendous help, and something I'm going to try tonight.

    Thank you! CJ

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad it helped. Best of luck with your writing!

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