Tips on How to Cut Down Your Novel’s Word Count

writing tips, writers, novel, word count, manuscript, edit, draft, tighten, concise, streamline

It’s a known fact that most writers overwrite – and especially most newbie writers overwrite. I fully admit I’m one of those – I never have to worry about meeting a word quota, more that I’ll run way over it!

Now I adore big books as much as the next person does, but when it comes to writing I have to be super disciplined with myself. I’ve had stories rejected before because they were way too long. As I’ve previously mentioned, good, strong, concise writing always packs a punch, more so than flowery, descriptive passages. And when you manuscript starts running well over 10,000 words, that’s when you know it’s time to get the pruning shears out.

So how do we kill our darlings? Let us count the ways.

1) A good role of thumb is to follow Rule Number 10 of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing: “When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” Does a paragraph or a scene or a chapter advance the story in any shape or form? If it doesn’t – cut it.

2) When in doubt, cut out a paragraph/section but don’t delete completely. I’ve talked previously about the pros of having a Cutting Room folder where Deleted Paragraphs Go To Die. So if you have a moment of regret and realise that the paragraph you erased yesterday would have absolutely made the story, you can at least journey forth into the Cutting Room Folder and perform a resurrection.

3) Hunter S Thompson once said: “Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.” Take this advice to heart – go over every sentences and cut out every single unnecessary word. Some redundant words to keep an eye out for include “that”, “suddenly”, “then” and “he/she said”. Also, eliminate all adjectives, adverbs and cliche phrases where possible. (It’s usually very possible).

4) Repetitive sentences – when found, delete, delete, delete.

Here’s an example: “Adair felt really happy. He smiled at her. All of a sudden, he felt like he could burst into song or run for miles.”

This could be cut to: “Adair smiled at her. He felt like he could burst into song or run for miles.”

If Adair is smiling and feeling like he could burst into song, it’s obvious to the reader that he’s happy. So the first sentence is redundant. It’s also more of a tell than a show – and writers must always show, never tellAnd finally, “all of a sudden” is an adverb – and cutting it makes the sentence that much stronger.

Now let’s move on to:

4) Abolishing that description. It’s always good to give the reader a clear idea of the world your story is set in. But here’s the things – it’s very easy to go overboard with description. And readers often tend to skip long descriptive passages (throwback here to Elmore Leonard’s Rule No. 10). So try not to go overboard with describing every single minute detail. Give the readers a little guidance but allow them fill in the rest with their imagination.

5) Besides location description, there’s also the risk of too much character description. When I was little, I used to be a huge fan of the Sweet Valley Twins series, stories about – you guessed it – a pair of Californian twins. Here’s the thing, each book invariably begins with a description of the twins – blonde hair, blue eyes, a perfect size 6, Elizabeth wears her hair up in a ponytail and loves writing and helping her friends while Jessica wears her hair loose and can be a selfish cow at times.

Because of this, I mistakenly thought for a long time that it was good writing to describe each of my characters right from their first appearance in a story. It wasn’t till much later that I realised this was in fact a sign of poor writing.

So a Sweet Valley-esque story might introduce a character as: “Enid walked into the room. She had large green eyes and curly auburn hair, a sprinkling of freckles on pale skin. She was dressed in a green checked shirt and jeans with espadrilles.”

But a much better way would be something like: “Enid strode into the room, green eyes blazing. She marched over to me and slammed the bag down on the table. She was clutching the handles so tightly, every freckle on her knuckles stood out.”

Right away, we have a clear idea of what Enid looks like without needing a full witness statement description.

Or maybe you don’t even need to describe what your characters look like. I love how when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in The Cursed Child, JK Rowling voiced her approval, pointing out that the canon for Hermione was “frizzy hair, brown eyes and very clever”, and that “white skin was never specified.”

So keep in mind that you don’t have to be super specific about what your character looks like. Maybe a better description would be the way he exits a room so quietly no one ever misses him or her strong, forceful stride that causes everyone to jump out of her way. Such things would give your readers a much better idea of just who your character is than the fact that she has curly hair and a big nose.

6) Finally, is your novel describing too much action? Let’s be clear: you really don’t need to describe your character waking up, brushing her teeth, exfoliating her face, trying on a few different outfits and plaiting her hair. All you need to say is: “Amelia woke up and got ready for school.”

In fact, you might not even need to say that. All you really need is: “Amelia got to school just as the ape pushed the science teacher out of the window.”

See how much more effective that is? We don’t need all that bit about Amelia getting up, getting dressed and getting to school before she gets out of the car and sees the ape pushing the science teacher out of the window. All we need is, “Amelia got to school just as the ape pushed the science teacher out of the window.”

Cut out the deadweight and get the reader to the really exciting parts of the story.

Another good example of this is phone call greetings. You’ll notice that in most books (and for that matter, TV shows and movies), characters rarely greet each other on the phone. There’s none of that, “Hi, how are you?” “Oh not so good. Feeling a bit tired from yesterday. Which reminds me, how’s your mum doing?” “Oh, she’s a lot better since she got over the flu. She’s out on the patio right now, enjoying the sunshine. How good has this weather been lately?” “Oh, terrific. I’ve been thinking I need to get down to the beach soon.” And on and so forth. Sure, all that happens in a conversation in real life but that’s not what the reader cares about. What the reader cares about is:

Alison rang Kay up. “Listen, I was thinking about the man we saw yesterday. I think he could be dangerous.”

Effective and to the point. There’s none of that 10 minute chitchat beforehand about the weather and what Kay had for dinner or what Alison thought of her blind date last night. No “Hi, how are you, oh good, yeah, me too, blah blah.” Just, “I was thinking about that man we saw yesterday. I think he could be dangerous.” Right away, that captures the reader’s attention, so much more than Kay’s new pasta recipe last night. Mm. Pasta.

Want more ways on how to cut down your novel? Author Janice Hardy has some great tips on how to shear that manuscript while author K.M. Weiland lists five ways to trim that word fat. 


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