Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Break it Down: Trimming Words From a Too-Long Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Cutting down a large manuscript can be a challenge, and one most writers would like to avoid. Even if you write sparse, odds are you'll face this at some point in your career. I've done several posts on trimming words, but what do you do if you need to cut large amounts of text? Tens of thousands of words instead of a few thousand.

This happened to me recently. My first draft was done, and way too large. During revisions I changed the plot a lot and it got even bigger. My first act was clocking in at 34K words, which meant my novel was going to likely end up about 140K words--about 50K more than it should be. Since I was aiming for the 80-90K word mark, I knew I had to get that first act down to around 20-23K words. Even 25K would be acceptable, as I could trim the rest after I was done.

However with so much to cut, my usual plan of attack was only going to get me so far.

So I broke it down.

I use the three act structure, so my novel was already broken into four parts. Act one (the first 25%), the ramp up in act two to the mid-point, the ramp down in act two from the mid-point (25% up, 25% down), and act three (the last 25%). This is a very standard plot structure, so I knew by keeping my major plot turning points at these key percentages in the novel kept the pacing tight. I knew my first act was too slow and bloated because it was 10K longer than it should be.

Step One
I took my first act and copied it into its own file. That way, I had a running tally of the actual word count, which made it a lot easier to keep track of what I was cutting away. It also let me fiddle all I wanted without having to worry about deleting something permanently.

Step Two
I wrote down the word count for each chapter so I could see where the bloated chapters were. I use the document map function in Word, so I put the word count next to each chapter heading for quick and easy reference. My opening chapter was over 4200 words, so I knew right away that had to come down.

Step Three
I did a little math and determined what my average word count per chapter would be. In this case, it was diving 25K by 18 (number of chapters) and getting roughly 1400 words. (1388 to be exact). Now, just because I had this number didn't mean every chapter had to be 1400 words. But it gave me a target to aim for per chapter. Some chapters were shorter, and that left room for the ones that were longer. This average was just a way to set some target goals. I didn't try to get down (or up) to this every chapter.

It's also helpful to look at various chunks and gauge size that way. For example, break it into half. Since I'm aiming for 25K words, then half of that is 12.5K. Nine chapters could make up that 12.5K, even if some of the individual chapters are over the 1400 word average. (This is where adding up the word counts per chapter really come in handy. I can see how far over that 12.5K I am, and trimming 1K words from 12K isn't that hard)

Step Four
I opened a second file and copied the chapter I was cutting into it. That gave me a word count to watch as I trimmed. It's a lot easier to hit your goal when you can see those words dripping off. I also found that by isolating the chapter, I was able to look at it more objectively. Reading it over and over as I trimmed words made the unnecessary ones jump out.

Step Five
Once a chapter was cut as low as I could (or until it hit that 1400 mark), I copied it back into my act one file, and updated the chapter word count. Then I moved onto the next chapter.

It might sound crazy, but this is the easiest way I've ever found to trim large chunks of words. Seeing the smaller numbers makes it less intimidating. Watching your word count drop from 123,345 to 121,467 doesn't feel like you're making any progress. Seeing it drop from 2156 to 1887 does.

Once I'm down to the 25K per act (which makes the overall novel about 100K), I'll do another pass with my editing lists. Get rid of overused words, unnecessary dialog tags, check for passive verbs and all those lovely red flag words that are often found with trouble spots. At that size, to cut another 10K words I'll only need to trim about 25 words per page, which isn't too hard to do. And if I can't, then I'll feel confident that the novel has a solid pacing even if it is a tad longer than I planned.

How do you approach trimming a large word count? Are you facing any cuts now you aren't sure where to start? Have you ever broken your manuscript into parts?


  1. These are great tips Janice. I used your redundant word list to cut LOTS of words from my too-wordy manuscript and then I had to go back and cut well-written scenes that really weren't necessary.

    This first draft I'm trying to keep better track of my word count as I write it thinking of the 3 act story. Your ideas are great.

  2. I have a friend who comes up with how many words she needs to cut per page and then keeps track of them with an abacus. It always leaves me in awe. So she'll sit down with her manuscript and say "I need to cut 50 words per page" for like, 400 pages. (Courier New, double spaced) and she'll just GO.

    For me, I tend to drastically reduce the word count of a scene when I re-write after the first draft, but I've never gotten far enough to reach the "OMG, I need to cut THOUSANDS OF WORDS" part. This seems like a good strategy for me to keep in mind.

  3. I've never thought about dividing my manuscripts into acts. I like the idea, though. I'll have to take a look at my WIP and try it. Thanks!

  4. Great ideas, Janice. I just chose a line to submit to with a much lower word count than my WIP. Apporximately 10K has to go. I'll be keeping your suggestions in mind.

  5. Natalie, it's working like a charm for me. The smaller bits make it so much easier.

    Kathie, an abacus? I'm awed. That's amazing. I can dive in and cut pretty easily, but I like having some sense that I'm making progress.

    Heather, acts make it easier to plot, too.

    Jenna, I cut 10K in five days. It can be done :) Good luck on yours!

  6. Great ideas, as always janice

  7. I like this idea. I've cut down on the normal extra wasteful words. Also, places where I felt the pacing needed amped.

    My current, I cut 125 pages off the front. I can't tell you the word count because I didn't want to know. Truly! This book was "done" but wasn't. I decided those pages were part backstory, so I've been weaving the necessary parts in. The plot has improved - at least I hope.

    I am back to page 125 on the nose today - thanks to an overnight field trip and a very long time on the bus.

    I am really trying to give up my pantser ways and plan better = rewrite less? Hard to pull off! I am trying to force myself into the four act structure. Tough.

  8. When my agent asked me to cut 20,000 words from my ms, I freaked. Then I worked out how many words I should have in a chapter and worked from there. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be and the final product was so much better. It's amazing how we can tell a story in much less words than we think.

  9. I'd like to be able to have a manuscript that's too long and needs to be trimmed -- I always run too short and have to add, which is very painful (especially when I'm still chopping stuff out).

    However, the first thing I do is a very fast pass over the manuscript. I always get what I call flotsam -- stuff that gets into the story that I thought I would develop and then didn't (being as I'm a pantser). Then I would scan through for scenes that could either combined or aren't really needed. I also use a macro to run a search for excess words. It highlights them in red so I can easily find them and edit as deleted.

  10. What a concrete and helpful post - thank you! I'm on to my 2nd edit and this is exactly what I needed. The whole 97k manuscript felt so daunting. Love your blog!

  11. So helpful to have a mathematical breakdown. The chunks make it much easier. Thanks for such a great post.

  12. Jo-Ann, thanks!

    Glacier, Grats! As a plotter who's done some recent pantsing, I can feel your pain. It's hard to change your process, and if plotting isn't for you, don't feel you have to do it. If you want more structure, try a light bullet points of plot events, maybe just five or six big moments. Just enough structure to give your writing direction, but still employ the pantsing style. If that works, then add some more structure as you want and build up from there until you find the right level.

    Tahlianewland, we really can. Cut one sentence per page and you take out thousands of words. Those big numbers can be pretty intimidating.

    Garridon, my first drafts tend to be short as well (though not this time). I'm terrible about putting the description in, so I always have to go back and add that. I've found fleshing the story out in layers helps make adding easier. Pick one aspect and do a pass for that. Helps keep me focused. I do the red word thing too!

    AmyMak, thanks! Glad this is working out for you. Trimming words seems daunting, but when you look at it in small bites it's much easier to deal with. There are a few posts on trimming words if you look under "trimming words" in the tag listing. (or just click on trimming words in the tags of this post)

    Arnel, most welcome. I guess it comes from my account family, but the math breakdowns always work for me. I like to know the numbers!