Thursday, February 15, 2024

3 “Easy” Steps for Cutting Words from Your Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Deleting words from your novel is easier than you think.

Before I dive in, I'm guest posting at Writers in the Storm this week, with  A Handy Trick for Brainstorming Your Plot. Come on over and say hello!

Getting rid of thousands of words from your manuscript is daunting. Having to cut tens of thousands of words can make you want to curl up in a ball and cry.

But trimming down a novel doesn’t have to be a huge hack and slash deal. You don’t have to rip your baby to shreds and gut the wonderful words that make the story shine. In fact, throwing away entire scenes often hurts more than helps, because you’re killing the story, not the extra words bogging that story down.

You want to get rid of the words that aren’t helping the story.

Don’t think of it as cutting words from your novel—think of it as giving your novel a really good deep cleaning.

Because that’s what you’re actually doing. You’re removing the dust and grime that gets left behind as you write and puts a dull sheen on the story. Those extra words hide the shine and keep the novel from sparkling. Wash the dirty windows, and you can clearly see the beauty through them.

It can be hard to cut words, though. Emotionally, you worked hard on the book and you’re attached to every word in it. Intellectually, you see the reasoning behind each word there and you wrote it for a reason. Technically, it’s just so much darn work to edit a novel down to a smaller size.

This is why it’s always good to take a break before you tackle a revision. It gives you time away from the manuscript, so when you look at it again, you can be more objective. And when you need to cut words, this is extremely useful.

But here’s the thing that makes this all manageable…

The average adult-market novel is around 80,000-100,000 words (But check the guidelines for your genre or market to find your target range). A common “too-long” manuscript is 120,000-words, roughly 480 pages, based on the traditional 250 words per page format.

You can cut 4,800 words if you delete just ten words per page. Ten words is nothing—it’s one sentence in most cases, and even in polished and published novels you can still find one sentence per page to cut and not hurt the story. Cut twenty words per page and that’s almost 10,000 words gone with little effort. If you have a 150,000-word novel? That’s 600 pages, so you’ll be able to cut either 6,000 or 12,000 words. Cut thirty words per page—that’s 18,000 words down.

If your goal was to trim down from 150,000 words to 100,000 words, that gets you almost halfway there, and you didn’t take anything from the story itself. Do the same pass again, and you’re even closer.

Working with words-per-page is much easier because you can trim consistently across the entire novel, not just certain sections.

(Here’s more with How to Edit a Novel Without Feeling Overwhelmed)

Here’s my easy three-step plan for cutting your novel down to the word count you want.

Step One: Decide how much you want to cut.

You might have a fixed number in mind, such as 10,000 words, or general target range, such as 80,000-90,000 words. You could also decide to cut in stages, taking out half of the target and then seeing how the manuscript flows before doing anything else.

Sometimes it’s easier—both emotionally and technically—to cut smaller chunks in several passes. That way, you clear out the easy stuff first, and have a better sense of how much still needs to go for the harder-to-make decisions.

(Here’s more with Slash and Burn: Cutting Words From Your Novel)

Step Two: Decide where it needs the cutting.

You can usually trim a little from every chapter, but some manuscripts will be bloated in one area and need deeper cuts in those spots. Looking at the novel’s structure is a great way to determine where the extra words lie.

Using the basic three-act structure, write down the word count of each act. If you use another structure, then use that and just adjust your percentages to fit.

It typically breaks down like this:
  • Act One is the first 25% of the manuscript.
  • Act Two fills 50%, with 25% being the ramp up to the midpoint and another 25% being ramp down from the midpoint.
  • Act Three is the final 25%.
So, if your manuscript is 100,000 words, you’d have four chunks of 25,000 words in each. At the end of each act, you’d have a major plot turning point. A 10% variance in section size is fairly normal, but anything beyond that needs a closer look.

Remember—these guidelines aren’t exact, but if (using the above example) you discover the Act One is 39,000 words, but the rest fits your target word counts, there’s a good chance the beginning is too long. Odds are you should cut extra words from there.

If you decide an act is working even though it’s longer, that’s okay. The goal is to use structure to diagnose and identify potential trouble areas, not force your manuscript to fit a particular template.

You can do the same for each chapter, too. While there’s no set rule for chapter length, if you spot several that are much bigger (or even shorter) than your average, those are good spots to look for bloat.

(Here’s more with A Journey Through Massive Edits In Ten Easy Steps)

Step Three: Cut down the manuscript.

Now comes the tough part, but you can do it. Take it step by step, page by page, and be ruthless. If your instincts are telling you what needs to go first, trust them.

If your words-to-cut number is daunting, trick your brain into thinking it’s not as bad as it looks:

Do the easy cuts first: Empty words, empty dialogue, unnecessary tags—cut all the words that commonly bloat a novel first. It’s surprising how many “only” “just” and “of the” a novel has.

Cut back to front: If you’re cutting words-per-page, start on the last page and work your way back. Not only will this keep you from getting caught up in the story, it won’t adjust the page count and cause you to cut more words from the front than the back as the novel tightens and becomes shorter.

Cut one chapter at a time in a new file: It’s a lot easier to hit that goal when you can see those words dropping off. And a bonus: by isolating the chapter, you can look at it more objectively and judge the pacing and flow.

Cut one act at a time in a new file: Same principle, just with more pages. This helps ensure you apply cuts evenly throughout your novel.

Set time limits on your cutting sessions: The longer you edit, the more likely it is you’ll let something slide because you’re tired and want to move on to the next part. Take a break between editing sessions and avoid any editing fatigue.

(Here’s more with How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-40% – and tighten your story without losing any of the good stuff!)

It’s not unusual to need several passes to cut all the words you want out of a manuscript. The easiest words usually go first, then, if you still need to trim, you have to make harder and harder decisions. By then, you’ll have a much better sense of the novel’s size and flow, and what needs to stay and what can go.

Trimming the unnecessary words from your manuscript takes time and effort, it’s well worth the work.

You’ll wind up with a stronger and more marketable novel, which will help you sell it to publishers and readers.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and cut down one scene in your novel using these techniques. What worked? What didn’t? Use this to guide your deep edit and hit your target word-count goal.

Have you ever struggled with a too-long manuscript?

*Originally published on Now Novel, September 2016. Edited and reposted February 2024.

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View ProblemsFixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This is great advice! It's hard to want to cut stuff, but these are definitely some easy ways to whittle at words.

  2. As a high school dept chair I had to contribute for yearly reviews and five year reviews and other curriculum matters. The principal always handed back everyone's reports and we were told to cut, cut, cut. I always added 150 to 250 words and still got my "revised " version accepted and approved. Just shows the pricicipals and administrators never read a bit of anything we did.

    1. LOL wow. Maybe it wasn't about the words but the content and you made it better?