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Friday, May 12

Lighten Up! Cutting Down Your Word Count

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week’s Refresher Fridays takes an updated another look and how to trim words from a novel. Enjoy!

Eliminating words from a manuscript is a common headache (and heartache) for a lot of writers, but it doesn’t have to be. 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. It’s often better for you and the manuscript to get rid of the words that aren't helping your story—or if you really need to cut, the words you can live without.

It can be daunting though. Hearing "cut 10,000 words from 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 many 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.

To hit this goal, all you have to do is approach it on a page by page basis.

Don't believe me? For funsies, let’s trim down a full page (page three I think) of my own novel, The Shifter. 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 let’s cut it to 214, then 204. I'll mark the words that can be deleted 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 with two tiny cuts. Did it change the story any? Nope. A few words of stage direction and one small internal thought aren’t going to affect how anyone reads this scene let alone this page. I like the luck line as it shows her bonding a little with the night guard, (which is why it’s there in the final novel), but since Nya is being unlucky in this scene, losing it isn’t a big deal.

(Here are more words that can usually be cut from a manuscript)

Now let's go back and cut out 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—”
That makes twelve more, and twenty-two total. Twenty-two words per page times 480 pages is 10,560 words—over the target goal of trimming 10,000 words. That’s 560 words you could add back if you really wanted to (like my ruffled, beady-eyed line, since I do love that one).

See how easy that was? Did I take out some good lines—yes, but the overall page didn't change and the story and scene stayed intact. And I can mark any lines I truly love in color and come back afterward to see if I still need to cut them.

If I can cut twenty-two words from a polished and published novel, I have faith that you can cut the words your need to trim from your manuscript.

(Here’s more on slashing and burning words from your manuscript)

Naturally, some pages will be harder to trim that others, especially if you have a lot of dialogue on a page and not a lot of words, but this will be balanced by the pages where you’ll be able to cut more than twenty words. I could cut another nine words from this page if I had to by deleting “He harrumphed and set his fists against his hips.” That’s getting a little tight, but I could do it if I needed those words more elsewhere.

Here are some places to look for extra words:

Stage direction in dialogue tags: You'll frequently find extra words in tags you can cut without changing anything. Often, you can leave the tag and cut the “she said” part. For example, “Look, a bird,” she said, pointing at the cardinal. This could easily be:
  • “Look, a bird,” she said. (Loses four words)
  • “Look, a bird!” She pointed at the cardinal. (Loses two words)
  • “Look, a cardinal!” (Loses six words)
A repeated idea or thought: 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. Look for internal questions—often the internalization or even dialogue around these internal questions makes the actual question unnecessary.

(Here's more on unnecessary internal questions)

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.

Characters 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.

Empty filler words: There are words we use all the time that usually add nothing to a sentence, such as: just, only, almost, that, really, truly, etc.

(Here’s more on eliminating unnecessary prepositions)

Extra tip: Start from the back and edit your manuscript from the last page to the first. That way, you won’t be “adding” words to the existing page as the rest of the manuscript “moves up.” It also helps you look at the page objectively and not get caught up in the story.

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 a manuscript 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.

Do you find it hard or easy to trim words from your manuscript? What tricks do you use? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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33 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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  20. Hey, thanks now I've got 3k words trimmed :D Am at 119k I'll keep at it. My later chapters got away from me as I'm going in circles in the end chapters. They are too new to touch right now as I can't see what needs to go yet. So I edited chapters 1-12 so far. I tend to do the "A repeated idea or thought," along with the questioning bit. I'm bookmarking this!

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  21. I am writing two novellas so when I revise then I will cut or add more. My books have mer-people in them. Janice, do you do simple descriptions when you write or long ones?

    I also need to revise stuff on palace grounds.

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    1. I dislike long descriptions, so I do as sparse as I can get away with (I rely on my beta readers a lot to know when I need more). But that's a personal preference, so write longer ones if you prefer. As long as the descriptions aren't bogging down the story and you like the way it reads, you're fine.

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    2. Thank you. What I might is also I need to revise this-Thank you. My characters have dark hair, raven hair or are burnette or stawberry blond and also mer-folk. Some of the mer-folk have bronze, cream or mocha colored skin. I was going to revise this.
      Rina picked names for her children from the seven-letter word
      “Mermaid”. Then Rina chose the name Mera for the clan. The mer-folk in
      the Mera clan had only three hair colors: raven, brown, or auburn-that
      was long for the mermaids and short for the mermen. Their eye colors
      ranging from turquoise, blue to green, or indigo or changing with
      their mood. They had different colored mer-tails ranging from blend of
      two colors, turquoise, fuchsia or indigo. Their skin stones varied
      from light brown to bronze and cream. At age of ten the merfolk got a clan
      tattoo. The royals only had runes on their lower back and they also
      had powers healing, telepathy and visions! The Mera clan had about
      three hundred.

      For a clan book I am working on. Help!

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    3. What you can try, is to mix those descriptions into the actual story. For example, you'd just say "Clan Mera" and call it that when you referred to it. There's no need to say who chose the name or why (unless that actually matters to the story). If there are only three hair colors, show that when you describe the individual mermaids. If you never mention anyone has blond hair, readers will know mermaids don't have blond hair.

      The trick is to use details where and when they matter to the story, and to avoid a large block that explains what things look like and why.

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    4. Thank you. What about the eye colors and mer-tails and skin coloring?

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    5. Same principle. Show what there is, don't worry about explaining why somethi9ng isn't there (unless you have a character who notices and finds it odd, for example. But if this is normal to them, they wouldn't think that)

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    6. Thank you, how do you publish with a publisher or self publish

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    7. That's a pretty big answer for a comment, so here's a link to an earlier article that outline the steps after you've written your novel:

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2009/04/youve-written-novel-now-what.html

      Self publishing is a little different, since you wouldn't get an agent or submit, but here's an article on figuring out if self publishing is for you or not.

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2014/01/are-you-good-enough-evaluating-whether.html

      This site has so much on this topic it's impossible to give you everything here, but here are general category links that show everything done in the publishing and self pub categories:

      Publishing: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2008/02/publishing.html

      Self and indie publishing: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2008/02/self-publishing.html

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  22. This is excellent advice and it works. I'm currently working through macro edits to a 115,000 word novel before my publisher starts the detailed development edit. Following this advice, I've cut nearly 800 words in just over 50 pages, taking out verbiage and recasting sentences to be tighter. Given how many pages I have left to go, I'll easily cut down and make the entire draft tighter. Thanks! You've made a daunting task so much more manageable.

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    1. Wonderful! I'm so happy I was able to help :) Best of luck with the rest of your edit.

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  23. Rina is Leilani's second great grandma who names the clan.

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  24. With my co-author there are three realms that have mer-folk, fairies, elves, shape shifters, drawfts, and gods there are humans but they cannot see the magical creatures on Planet Avanaria.

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