Cutting words out of a story can be a writer’s worst nightmare, but sometimes you just have to do it. Recently, I managed to cut the manuscript of my WIP from 103k words to 84k, and here I share five of the most useful tricks I discovered along the way! →
Cutting out words can be a writer’s worst nightmare. While I’m sure there are some out there who enjoy picking up a red pen and scratching through line after line of text, the mere thought of it fills me with misery and dread. Cutting words? How can I? EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT AND I DON’T WANT TO GET RID OF ANYTHING!!!!!!!
But sometimes you just have to, right? The second draft of my contemporary YA novel Holding Up the Sky came in at 103,000 words, which I knew was a bit too long for the genre, especially as an unpublished writer. I wanted my third draft to be 90,000 words at the very longest, which meant cutting a good 12.5% of the novel. Eek!
Fortunately, I managed to put aside the part of my brain that was emotionally attached to every single word and get to work with my metaphorical red pen. The third draft of Holding Up the Sky ended up being 84,000 words, meaning I had reduced the size of the novel by 18.5%!! I couldn’t believe it! I learned several valuable lessons from this process, and today I share with you five of the most useful tricks I employed to reduce my WIP’s word count. I hope you find them helpful!
The first (unfortunate) step when making cuts to your word count is to be ruthless about what scenes you should keep and what scenes don’t add much to the story. Believe me, I know it hurts, but the fastest way to get rid of words is to delete non-vital paragraphs and scenes. It’s hard, and heartbreaking at times, but ultimately worth it, as this process can really tighten up your story. But keep these deleted scenes on file somewhere, because then you can always add them back in later!
Break it down
Large tasks always seem easier when they’re broken down into smaller parts, right? Well, the same goes for cutting down your word count! Using the word count of your current draft, and the word count you’re aspiring to, you can figure out the number of words you need to delete. Divide this number by the number of chapters in your WIP, and you have an idea of how many words, on average, you need to eliminate each chapter. It’s much less daunting to know you need to reduce each chapter by 500 words than a whole manuscript by 10,000!
You will be amazed at how quickly rewording certain types of sentence can cut down your word count! Give passive sentences a more active voice by removing words such as “was”, “were” and “that” (e.g. “Her words hurt me” is 33% shorter than “I was hurt by her words”). Be more direct by removing sentence starters such as “there are/were” (e.g. “Two plates sit on the table” is 25% shorter than “There are two plates sitting on the table”). Turn certain nouns into verbs (e.g. “He concluded” is 60% shorter than “He came to the conclusion”). It may take a bit of work, but rewording sentences in these ways can cut out words without having to cut out content!
Remove dialogue tags
What, really? Yes, really! Removing unnecessary dialogue tags (e.g. he said, she asked, I whispered) is an excellent way to reduce your word count. I tend to overuse dialogue tags in my early drafts, because I always try to show what my characters are doing / thinking / feeling while they’re talking. But overuse of dialogue tags can be annoying to the reader, too. Like…if you use your quotation marks correctly, do you REALLY need to add “he said” every time, unless it’s unclear who’s talking? I cut a lot of words this way, so I’m sure you can too!
Adjust chapter endings
This final trick is an interesting one I came across SOMEWHERE on the internet years ago, and which I’ve found to be quite helpful. When you finish writing a chapter, assess the position of the last few lines on the page. If you only have a few words, or one line, or maybe a single paragraph (up to you!) at the top of a page before the chapter ends, go through and edit your chapter so those last few lines finish at the bottom of the previous page. Obviously, this relates to the formatting of your draft rather than its actual content, but it’s a neat trick for cutting out those extra few words!