Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Get Over Overstating: Trimming Unnecessary Words in Your Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are plenty of ways to cut words from your manuscript. If you know where to look.

Often, when we tinker with our manuscripts we repeat ourselves. Sometimes this is good, as it reinforces critical elements of the story, but sometimes it just bloats the story and adds extra words. Here are some tips on finding--and eliminating--those unnecessary words in your own work.

Words That Tell Readers Everything

A common unnecessary word or phrase is one that states something the reader can clearly figure out from the text. Trimming it can tighten the prose and make it read more smoothly.
I darted to the window [and peeked out.] Enzie was running down the walk, waving her arms above her head and yelling.
It's clear that the narrator here looks out the window after she darts to it because she tells you what she sees. Leaving in "and peeked out" won't hurt the story, but the goal is to start picking up the pace in this scene since something bad is about to happen. Having a shorter sentence achieves that.

What you can look for: Places where you've shown or implied an action, then went on to explain the action anyway. Senses are common offenders here. You listen to hear, look to see, touch to feel.

(More on eliminating often used words here) 

Words That Give, Way too Much Information

Let's look at one that actually weakens the story by leaving it in:
She sure as spit wouldn't go quietly, [so I would have heard something.]
If she didn't go quietly, it makes perfect sense that noise would have been made and it would have been heard. Not only does cutting the back half of this sentence tighten the prose, it ends it on a much more dramatic punch. "She sure as spit wouldn't go quietly" suggests all kinds of interesting things to the reader, while "so I would have heard something" is just flat explanation. Who cares if she would have heard something. But we wonder what she would do to "not go quietly."

What you can look for: Great punchlines that are weakened by explanation or reinforcement of the idea. You can usually tell the lines that land well, and when you end a sentence or a paragraph with those, you entice the reader to read the next sentence or paragraph. If you deliver a great line, and then keep talking, you might be weakening that line.

(More on trimming words from a too-long manuscript here) 

Words That Repeat Themselves

Sometimes we say the same thing in two different ways:

Had she lied about the others or were they cleverly blending in with the mob looking for work? They'd already proven they were sneaky. [The streets were packed and it would be easy to hide in the crowds.]

Blending in with the crowds conveys the same information as saying it would be easy to hide in the crowds. We don't need both. And ending at "sneaky" leaves the reader wondering what else they might be sneaky about.

What you can look for: Repetition of ideas. These are harder to spot because they feel right and are usually well written, so they don't jump out at you. Keep a sharp eye out in scenes you know feel slow, but can't figure out why, or places where you want to trim and don't know what to cut.

(More on cutting down your word count here)

Words That Use a Similar Idea or Action

Sometimes a sentence works perfectly well, but it has to go because it restates a similar line used close by in the same scene:
Relief bobbed above my terror for a heartbeat, but finding her first didn't mean we could get to her first. [I risked a look around the edge of the shed.] The woman tracker was by the ramp now, a blue-black pynvium rod in her hand.
This type of repetition is harder to judge without the whole passage, but the line, "I risked a look around the edge of the shed" doesn't really add anything to this, especially as the character has been peeking and looking a lot in this scene. Alone it sounds fine, but after three other similar actions, it really stands out, and that will distract the reader.

What you can look for: Similar actions or thoughts in the same scene. These are tough to spot, and the easiest way to do it is to read large chunks at once. That way, you'll remember the three other times you used a similar line in the same chapter and can cut the ones that aren't necessary. If you find yourself using the same word (like look, or peeked) you can a search for them and see how many you used. I've found making them bold and red, then looking at the pages in full page view lets me see how often I've used them.

(More on slashing and burning words here)

Repeating ourselves is so easy to do, especially when we're revising and not reading the story in chronological order. But once you start training yourself to look for them, they tend to jump out at you.

Do you have common words or phrases you look for? Do you have any you know you repeat a lot? 

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great examples. I had this pointed out to me recently by my Beta. Apparently, I'm the queen of redundancy. (Hugs)Indigo

  2. I find it ironic that I accidentally repeated a large chunk in my post about being repetitious, LOL. Darn Ctr-V.

  3. I've enjoyed your golden oldie posts. It's the kind of thing that is important to keep reminding ourselves.

  4. I do catch myself doing some of these! Nice to know I'm not alone!

  5. Really helpful stuff here, Janice. Thanks. I'm revising my novel at the moment and I needed to hear this.

  6. Great advice.

    I worry that novices like me are too easily self-deceived on just how deep the knife must cut. Recently, I wanted to submit my 8500-word story to a market with a 8k limit. I had edited the thing down thoroughly and felt it was at its optimum length. Nevertheless, just as an exercise, I went through again. My cutting decisions this time weren't based on improving the story; they were based on "will removing this sentence render the surrounding prose unintelligible?" I.e., I cut far deeper than my judgment allowed. The result was: 1500 fewer words, and an unquestionably better story.

    Yikes! A 17% reduction even after several edits. This exercise was a fabulous lesson, but gut-wrenching. Can someone lend me a time machine? I need to resubmit my story in its improved form to those markets that have already rejected it.

  7. Thanks! That's a great exercise, Fred. I need to do that with Shifter 3 next week. It's about 25K words longer than the first two . It's wrapping up a trilogy, but still. I think I need to take at least 10K off of it.

  8. Thanks, Janice, for some excellent suggestions. It's amazing how we sometimes inadvertently underestimate the intelligence of the reader!

  9. This is totally my problem. :\

  10. Lately, my "overstating" issue has been scenes that go back to the same places I was just at. Like I'll have Nya and the gang go to X place to do Y, and later go back to X again and do something similar to Y. Then I have to either combine or cut one of the scenes.

  11. This is great! Just going through this process with my first draft. It's amazing how quickly the pace of a scene picks up when you remove redundant sentences and explanations.

  12. It really is. It's also a great way to trim down a long novel without hurting the story.

  13. I regularly overwrite my scenes, saying the same thing multiple times or adding extraneous words. Even after I've tried removing them all, I still need someone else to check out the words. After a while, you just can't see past your own writing.

    1. That's what those beta readers are for -grin-. I do it too since sometimes it takes me a few tries to find just the right words and placement. I find I catch more if I let the manuscript sit for a few months between edit sessions.

  14. When I'm finished with my final polished draft (ha!), I will re-read every post you've written with the tags revision, trimming words, and word count (and anything else in the same vein). And then get to work.

    Have you considered putting the posts together into an ebook? If you do, sign me up for an advance purchase.

    I write longer than I'd like - and have trouble editing competent drafts after I've worked hard on them. Being systematic - and book wide - on edits is going to be a necessary task. You have great advice and some wonderful examples.


    1. Hope the new look makes it even easier to find all those articles.

      The first in my writing series (on planning your novel) will be out in March, actually. All my beta readers said it helped them with their current WIPs, so even though it's on planning it also works great for revisions.

      When you edit, perhaps try making a list of what you want to accomplish, then tale it one item at a time. Breaking it into bite-sized chunks might make it easier to focus on the text and not the "story." Less subjective when it's just words.

  15. I have to be really careful with this. I'm guilty of banging over the head. Thanks, Janice!

    1. My pleasure. I do a revision pass for this myself. It's too easy for repeats to slip in.

  16. Hi Janice
    I am entirely guilty of most of these :)
    Saying the same thing in two different ways is my personal fave (I'm really good at it!) Also, adding that unnecessary bit on the end of sentences... Also a speciality of mine.
    I'm working on not doing these things when I write but they're still turning up in the edit, though to a lesser extent.
    Excellent reminders, thanks.

    1. If you can catch them in the first pass that's great, but I often repeat myself as I try to figure out what I want to say and where the best place to say it is. So don't worry too much if you find those extra words on a first draft. Just be ruthless on the second. Bwahaha.

  17. I'm one of those writers who overstate, afraid the reader won't understand without it. I know I'm wrong but my first draft is filled with this stuff.