Thursday, February 05, 2015

How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-40% – and tighten your story without losing any of the good stuff!

By Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Part of the Indie Author Series

Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long? Are you cringing at the potential cost of getting your long manuscript edited?

Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and smaller reading devices, so sales are increasing for shorter fiction. Also, freelance editors charge by the word, page, or hour, so of course you’ll be paying a lot more to have your longer manuscript edited – especially if it’s rambling and needs a lot of tightening, so a lot of editing input.

Cutting your word count can gain you readers and save you a bundle on editing costs. And can be a great exercise in learning to write tighter and making every word count.

The current preferred length for thrillers, mysteries and romance is around 70,000–90,000 words. Anything over 100K is definitely considered too long in most genres these days. Well-written, finely crafted fantasies and historical sagas can run longer, but newbie writers need to earn their stripes before attempting to sell a long novel. Basically, every word needs to count. Every image and decision and action and reaction needs to drive the story forward. There’s no place for rambling or waxing eloquent or self-indulgent extras or asides in today’s popular fiction! Thrillers and other suspense novels especially need to be fast-paced page-turners.

Here are some concrete strategies for cutting your word count. It’s best to proceed roughly in this order, using any of the tips that apply to your novel:

First, consider various reasons why your novel may be overly long.

  • Do you have a meandering, overly wordy writing style? If so, you’ll need to tighten it up by cutting all unnecessary words.
  • Do you have long descriptions of the setting or characters, or lengthy character backstory?
  • Are there any scenes that drag, lack in tension and intrigue, or just don’t drive the story forward?
  • Have you or others noticed repetitions of various kinds (imagery, plot points, ideas, descriptions, phrases, words)?
  • In general, can your scenes, paragraphs and sentences be leaner?


A. Start with big changes such as cuts to plot, characters, and chapters. Ask yourself these questions:

Do I have 2 or 3 novels in one? If your writing is quite tight but you have an intricate, involved plot, can you divide your really long novel into two or three in a series? But bear in mind that each book in the series needs its own plot arc and character arc – rising tension and some resolution, and a change/growth in the protagonist. Don’t leave readers hanging or they’ll feel cheated.

Can I cut out a few plot points?
If the story doesn’t lend itself to being broken up, try making your plot less detailed. Cut or combine some of your less exciting scenes. Cut down on some of the “and then, and then, and then…”

Can a subplot be cut? Consider deleting one or two (or three) subplots, depending on how many you have. Save it for a short story or another novel.

Do I really need all those characters? Too many characters can be confusing and annoying to the readers. Consider taking a character or two out of this story and saving them for other stories. Or combine two or three characters into one. And don’t get into involved descriptions of minor, walk-on characters.

Am I warming up too long? Consider deleting or condensing chapter one. Maybe even chapter two, as well. Take out the warm-up, where you’re revving your engine, and start your story later.

Do I have too much backstory? Take out all or almost all character history in the first few chapters and marble in just the essentials as you go along, on an “as-needed” basis only. This also helps add intrigue.

Does every chapter drive the story forward? Delete or condense any chapters that don’t have enough tension, intrigue,and change. Add any essential bits to other chapters. (Save deleted stuff in another file.) Or condense two chapters and combine them into one.

Do any scenes drag? Delete or condense scenes that don’t have enough conflict or change, or add much to the plot or characterization. Condense parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.) Summarize transitional scenes or chapters in a few sentences to tack onto another chapter.

Can anything else go? Take out any weak links, remnants from earlier versions, stuff that just doesn’t fit there anymore (if it ever did). This might be a good time to “kill your darlings” – those passages you love but just don’t fit in this story or drive the plot forward.

B. Then evaluate your writing style and the internal structure of your chapters and scenes:

Cut back on rambling or overly detailed descriptions of settings. With today’s access to TV, movies, the internet and travel, readers no longer need the kind of detail readers of 100 years ago needed to understand the setting, so just paint with broad brush strokes, and leave out all the little details. Also, don’t describe the setting in neutral language. Filter any descriptions of surroundings through the eyes, ears, and attitude of your point of view character.

Condense character descriptions. Just provide the most interesting details,those that contribute to characterization of both the character described and the observing character, and let the readers fill in the rest to their heart’s content.

Take out repetition of events the readers already know. Don’t have a character telling another character about something that happened that the readers witnessed first-hand and already know about. Skip over it with a phrase like “She told him how she’d gotten injured.”

Start scenes and chapters later and end them sooner. Cut out the warm-up and cool-down.

Skip over transitional times when not much happens. Replace with one or two sentences, or just a phrase, like “Three days later,”.

Eliminate or severely condense any “explanations” on subjects. Take out or condense any info dumps, self-indulgent rambling on pet topics, “teaching” sections, or rants. Keep these to the bare minimum, and give the info from a character’s point of view, with attitude, through a lively conversation or heated argument.

Eliminate repetitions and redundancies. Just say it once – no need to say it again in a different way. You may think that will help emphasize your point, but it actually has the opposite effect.

C. Finally, tighten your writing to create leaner paragraphs and sentences:

Streamline your writing. Try to delete one paragraph per page (or two); one sentence (or more) in each paragraph; and at least one word, preferably more, in each sentence. Cut out the deadwood!

Delete all useless words and phrases. Do a search for all those words that are just taking up space or weakening your prose, and delete most of them, like there is, there was, it is, it was, that, now, then, suddenly, immediately, and qualifiers like very, quite, kind of, sort of, somewhat, extremely, etc.

For better flow, condense wordy phrases: Instead of “For the simple reason that” just say “Because.” Instead of “despite the fact that,” just say “despite.” Instead of “In spite of the fact that,” just say “Although.” Instead of “take into consideration,” say “consider.” Change “the captain of the team” to “the team captain”; change “in the vicinity of” to “near.” Change “located at” to “at,” etc.

Reduce redundancies. Instead of “absolutely necessary” just say “necessary.” Instead of “advance warning,” just use “warning.” Replace “extremely unique” with “unique,” “final outcome” with “outcome,” “regular routine” with “routine,” “unexpected surprise” with “surprise,” and so on.

For more specifics on all above points and lots more specific tips on streamlining your writing and cutting out the deadwood, see my book, Fire up Your Fiction.

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. When she’s not reading or editing compelling fiction, Jodie enjoys combining her two other passions, photography and traveling.

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About Captivate Your Readers: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

This third guide to writing compelling fiction by sought-after editor and award-winning author Jodie Renner provides concrete advice for captivating readers and immersing them in your story world.

It’s all about engaging readers through the use of techniques such as using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, avoiding author intrusions, writing dialogue that’s real and riveting, and basically letting the characters tell the story.

Today’s readers want to put aside their cares and chores and lose themselves in an absorbing story. This book shows you how to provide the emotional involvement and immediacy readers crave in fiction.

As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes, “...get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow. This book provides techniques for making sure your characters stay unique, charismatic and authentic.

And like her other writing guides, the format of this one is also reader-friendly, designed for busy writers, with text broken up by subheadings, examples, and lists, and plenty of concrete tips.


  1. Thanks so much for inviting me to post on your fabulous blog, Janice! I send my editing clients here all the time to read the spot-on advice for writers here!

    This morning I have to drive for an hour, spend a few hours looking at condos to buy, then drive back, so I'll only be online sporadically until this afternoon. But I'll definitely check in later!

  2. Some great advice here. I"ve been doing this on my current draft.

    1. Good to hear we're on the same wavelength, Anna! :-)

  3. This is a really rich post with so much useful information. Thanks! I needed that!

    1. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Rosi. I'm glad you find my tips useful!

  4. Jodie,

    Your post was fantastic and I found a few excellent points to implement changes in my first novel (presently a complicated plot sitting at 141K). But I have to disagree on part of this post: what you'd said about a writer having to "earn their stripes."

    Terry Brooks, the author of SOMETIMES THE MAGIC WORKS, said that a book is the cheapest investment for the largest chunk of time. It makes the person slow down his world to enter another one. Cable, game systems, the Internet, etc., are abandoned for the tale in his or her hands he or she is about to dive into (paraphrasing mine). He's right, IMO; if you devise a story so compelling and hooking from the onset, you won't notice the time passing, or its length.

    This isn't to disagree with you in cutting excess wordage, dead scenes, doorstop characters, repeated information; I whole-heartedly agree. But ... if you've done all this, read it through, it's as tight as it can be without "stripping the threads," how can something coming in over 100K be so terrible? Why can't fiction be meatier despite the other distractions? Why use the excuse to rush a reader through a story because we're in a faster society; isn't a book forcing their attention span to stay in one place, if the story's told as it should be? And who said from the onset a newbie writer should write tight before writing long? Even some established authors have written works so wordy, rambling, ranting and the like, that, with the exception of their loyal fans, other readers quit reading them; this is all over the Internet in many examples (I won't name-drop, though. *grin*). Earned stripes or not, it smacks of a double standard, and one perpetuated at that. Argue as one may, but it just does.

    I contend if a writer sets herself from the onset this is the stories' length (and no higher or lower), the readers may feel cheated if, on the next book, she gives them less or expect them to hang on her every unnecessary, can-be-cut word for more. Also, what about books written long ago some HS kids today are expected to read; aren't those longer than a set word count, too?

    Maybe I'm not seeing something in this mix, and I may be put on blast for sharing this view. But before today, no one's given me a valid explanation why one needs to earn their stripes to justify a longer work, when it's the story itself worthy of that time to begin with. Liken this to a little kid going after the prize on a quest after he'd been laughed at by his village for being too small, too young, not experienced, etc. He returned with the prize. Nobody laughed anymore.

    Great post, even though we might agree to disagree agreeably on the points above. I'll definitely implement some of these solid tips in my present WIP that'll reflect a lower count.

    1. I agree with you, M.K.! I've seen many reviews on Amazon that complained of the ending feeling "rushed." I wonder if that sometimes happens in order to bring the word count into alignment with some arbitrary standard. (It could also simply indicate a lack of skill in handling the resolution of the book.)

      I've also read reviews that say the reader was sorry to come to the end, that he or she would happily have continued reading in the world the author created. A review like that tells us the reader was engaged and not in a hurry to get back to the video games and TV!

      Obviously, readers wanting "more" isn't license to pad the word count. But I think one of the key factors in setting that limit was the logistics of printing, shipping, and displaying printed books: the more pages in the book, the more expensive to print and ship, and the fewer that could be displayed. In today's world of e-books, this consideration no longer applies to the same extent.

    2. "I've also read reviews that say the reader was sorry to come to the end, that he or she would happily have continued reading in the world the author created. A review like that tells us the reader was engaged and not in a hurry to get back to the video games and TV!"

      Exactly, Pharosian! That's my goal: to engage readers as previous authors have for me. And they did not need to word pad to get there; that's as insulting to a reader's intelligence as it is to say they can have a great experience on a truncated story for overhead reasons. Wrong.

      That said, I factored in costs in hard copy form, and I believe in my product enough I'm willing to offer a percentage of my earnings to costs. How many writers, even big name ones, do this? Not many--but then, talking about it holds no credibility, either. They very well could be, far as I know. But you're exactly right regarding e-books, a word count shouldn't be limited there. Unfortunately, those prices are creeping higher, too ... but that also could be a writer making that production earnings sacrifice on the back end. Everything in life's a trade-off.

      What a business, eh?

      Great reply. Thank you.

  5. You make some excellent points, M.K.! Thanks for your thoughtful comments! :-)

  6. Jodie, I always love your craft tips! And your Fire Up Your Fiction book helped me shave lots of words of my last book, saving me $$ in editing. Plus, it helped make it a much leaner book.

    Right now I'm on draft three, and I just ditched an entire character. I don't miss her a bit :)

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Julie! I'm so glad you find my craft tips and my Fire up Your Fiction book helpful! :-)

  7. Great tips!

    One comment about removing unnecessary words: in dialogue, and description that's written from a character's viewpoint, words like "quite" and lengthier phrases in place of shorter ones can be important for proper characterization. "That's quite enough" versus "That's enough," or "I'm rather well" versus "I'm well" imply different things.

    Another aspect of this relates to the social class of your characters: typically, more educated and higher class individuals hedge their statements with prefaces like "my understanding is..." or "one might assume..." especially in polite/social conversations.

    In the case of generic description by the author as narrator, I completely agree that the qualifiers and other such words are best removed. Keep it sparse and objective.

    1. Peter, I totally agree that characters' phrasing and word choice should sound like those people would actually speak in real life! That applies for all characters, from physicists and university professors to young adults, to street people. A problem I often see in my editing is all characters sounding the same - like the author! Children and rough "thug"types speak very differently than educated adults, of course, but even men and women speak differently. I discuss dialogue this in all three of my books, including my upcoming one.

      And by the way, in order to create a strong, distinctive, appealing narrative voice, I think the narration should also be in the viewpoint character's word choices and speaking style, and should be colored by his or her preferences, opinions, personality, and mood, as most narration is really the point of view character's observations and reactions to what's going on around him. I get into that a lot in my upcoming book, Captivate Your Readers.

  8. These are great tips, Jodie, because you're right--people's attention spans are too short these days not to write like this. And as someone who tends to be wordy I really need this reminder, and will print it off and keep it close by.

    But I won't deny that having to write like this if you want to be published these days makes me sad; I love language, and I can't help but feel that writing this tight is pushing beautiful, lyrical writing off the edge of the cliff, to be killed forever. I'm in my 50s, so I'm sure part of it is the age gap. Most of the books I grew up devouring would never be published today.

    Still, thank you for this very detailed breakdown of what to look for. As someone who does want to get published one day, it's very helpful!

  9. would these tips - excellent ones by all means - hold water for short stories as well? i once got feedback from an editor that my flash fiction piece of 1000 words didn't have a well-defined plot arc, or a character development, or a clear resolution. that stumped me - totally. coming back to the point of shaving off deadwood - we are expecting a lot from authors today and want that they should leap headlong into the woods rather than amble along at a sedate pace. we will have to change the way we want to present stories to the reader in these rushed, distracting and impatient times. to you, JD, many thanks.

    1. They would indeed. Tight writing is tight writing, no matter what the length, but with flash fiction, every word *really* counts. They more you can do in fewer words, the more you have to get in the story. The story arc in flash fiction might be a little less defined, but you can still get it in there.

      A good example of a lot of story in few words is Hemingway's classic six-word short story--For sale--baby shoes. Never worn.

      Pack as much punch into as many sentences as you can in a flash fiction tale, and you can tell a lot of story. Hard to do, but worth it when it works like this.