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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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