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Wednesday, August 9

Improving Your Writing Without Raising Your Word Count

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A recent commenter made an astute observation—advice on improving writing often results in adding words, so how do writers avoid turning their 70,000-word novel into a 140,000-word novel?

It’s a valid question. Most times, fleshing out a scene will add words to the manuscript, and if you do that enough times, you will increase the size of the novel.

But here’s the thing—flat or weak writing typically doesn’t make good use of language, so as you add words in some scenes, you’ll cut them in others. Overall, the word count will balance out as the chaff falls away. I’ve actually had novels that dropped words after a serious edit. I was able to cut the weak writing that didn’t serve the story in favor of strong writing that did.

For example:

If you’re prone to empty dialogue, you might have dozens of pages of it scattered throughout the novel. You might make small cuts in each conversation, but do enough of them and it adds up to a lot of words you can use elsewhere to improve scenes that need it.

If you write heavy descriptions and detailed stage directions, combining the two makes every word do double duty. Two long paragraphs that describe the scene and then show the protagonist moving through that scene might turn into one paragraph showing the protagonist interacting with the setting instead.

If your characters tend to ramble in their internalization and then repeat a lot of those thoughts in their dialogue, you might cut half of it by inserting some key lines of subtext and body language—which likely also raises the tension and increases the conflict since things aren’t stated outright.

(Here’s more on identifying weak scenes)

Let’s look at an example using empty dialogue. Say you open a scene like this:
Miguel ran into Bob as he left the restaurant. “Hey,” he said. “Long time no see.”

“Hey.”

“How’s it going?”

Bob shrugged. “Been all right. You?”

“Can’t complain.” He shifted his weight, unsure what to say next.

“Good, good,” Bob said.

“Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Been busy.” (scene continues with the point of these two meeting)
Writers write this type of “throat cleaning” scene every day. There’s a decent chance you have one like it in your current WIP (if not, kudos!). This is 49 words that could easily be two sentences.
Miguel ran into Bob as he left the restaurant. “Hey,” he said. “Long time no see.”

Bob nodded slowly and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Been busy.” (scene continues with the point of these two meeting)
That’s 28 words that get to the point much faster, which leaves us with 21 words we can add somewhere else. Actually, 31 words if you don’t count the 10 we added here to show Bob was a little nervous. We already used some of those cut words to improve this scene, and still had some left over.

(Here’s more on empty dialogue)

It’s easy to think, “Sure, 21 words, big deal, my manuscript is 125,000. How is that going to help me?” But you’d be shocked at how a few words here and there add up. A 125,000-word novel is about 500 pages. Cut just ten words from each page of and that’s 5,000 words. That’s a lot of words you can use to improve a novel.

(Here’s more on cutting down your word count)

At first, you might worry you’re bloating your manuscript, but as you revise, you’ll start seeing words disappear. So don’t worry too much about the final count until the revision is done. It’s not uncommon to discover you no longer need whole chunks of scenes that served as nothing more than backstory or infodumps, that paragraphs of transition description have turned into one or two sentences, and half a page of internal musings becomes a single line filled with subtext.

Improving your novel doesn’t only mean adding words to flesh it out. It also means cutting out words that are strangling it.

Does your word count grow, shrink, or stay about the say when you revise?

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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2 comments:

  1. [2nd time typing this; no, third, including failed attempt using IE]
    Interesting. Thanks for posting. My word count tends to increase upon edits, as I resolve inconsistencies between early and late scenes.

    I suspect this is what differentiates us (singular reference) also-rans from the victors.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd agree there :) Putting in the work makes all the difference.

      Sorry you had issues posting.

      Delete