Get Rid of Ugly Wordiness: How to Cut Your Novel Down to Size

Article by Lillie Ammann

When a writer contacted me to edit his 164,000 word novel, I told him publishers don’t like books that long. We discussed the possibility of breaking the novel into two separate stories. However, when I read the manuscript, I realized the word count could be cut dramatically. He was appalled at the thought-he’d worked hard on every one of those words, and he knew each one had to be there.

We agreed to experiment with the first chapter. Although I usually use Track Changes to show my suggestions, we decided I would send him a clean copy with all my recommended changes incorporated. If he thought cutting words destroyed his story, we would start over.

He called me after he read the revised first chapter. “I thought you were going to cut it down. Everything is still there.”

“Everything important is still there,” I answered. “But all your words aren’t there.”

Since he couldn’t tell I’d cut anything, he gave me permission to continue.

This is the process I used to cut his novel from 164,000 words to 118,000 words. You can use these same steps to lose excess wordiness from your own writing.

  • Eliminate repetition. “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” may be good advice for giving a speech. However, a novelist seldom needs to repeat information.

If a scene is described in action, inner thought, and dialogue, cut out the repetitions and leave the action. Although you should show more than tell in a novel, sometimes you need to tell. If one character needs to convey information that the reader already knows, simply say Character A told Character B about …

Trust your readers. If they’re smart enough to read your book, they’re smart enough to remember the defining event in the protagonist’s life. You can connect a thought or an action to what happened before without repeating all the details.

  • Eliminate unnecessary words. Write in active voice rather than passive to make your writing readable and interesting in fewer words.

You can cut almost every instance of some words-such as very and that.

Use strong verbs rather than weak verbs supported by adverbs. He trudged is both more descriptive and shorter than he walked slowly and heavily.

Don’t overuse adjectives. Be specific. The red Corvette is more effective than the flashy, fast, brightly colored sports car.

  • Eliminate backstory. Almost every manuscript I’ve read from beginning writers-including my own!-begins with too much history before the real story starts.

Begin with action and let the readers meet the characters as we meet people in life. We learn their names, see what they look like (if we meet in person), maybe find out a few details such as what they do for a living. But we discover more about them only as the relationship develops.

After several rounds of editing the long novel, we removed the first four chapters. We introduced what readers needed to know when they needed to know it instead of bogging them down with history before anything happened.

  • Eliminate anything that doesn’t reveal character or move the plot forward. This novel was filled with tidbits of information, cute dialogue, interesting characters, and amusing incidents.

“We’ve never heard of this character before. What part does he play in the plot?” I asked.

“Well, this is the only time he appears. But this was just such a funny scene.”

“How does the scene fit into the rest of the story?”

“Well, it really doesn’t. But it’s so funny!”

Cut! If you’ve included a character or a scene or a quaint historical fact just because you liked it, get rid of it. Of course, you can have a character who appears only once-if he does something that moves the plot along or that shows something about your protagonist. But if the character or scene doesn’t add to the story, eliminate it.

In short, when you edit to cut your novel down to size, remember the words of Elmore Leonard: “I leave out the parts that people skip.”

————————

Lillie Ammann is a writer, editor, and consultant specializing in working with self-publishing authors. She blogs at A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye.

70 thoughts on “Get Rid of Ugly Wordiness: How to Cut Your Novel Down to Size

  1. Pingback: A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye » Blog Archive » Guest Post at Poewar: Get Rid of Ugly Wordiness
  2. Thank you for the article Lillie. If my novels were long enough to cut down instead of pad, I’d be getting somewhere.

  3. Lillie,

    Excellent advice! Your last point can be extremely tempting to overlook. We often become so enamored with a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or scene we’ve written that we find it excruciatingly difficult to cut. But, we must become ruthless editors, removing even the most clever turns of phrase when they don’t advance the plot and fit seamlessly into the work as a whole.

    Wonderful post!
    Jeanne

  4. Jeanne,
    It was far easier for me to chop all those words out of my clients’ novel than it would have been for him. I could “kill his darlings” because I wasn’t in love with every word like he was.

    John,
    Thank for you giving me the opportunity to guest post. It’s as hard to pad a short novel as it is to cut down an over-long one. Maybe you’re really writing novellas. I enjoy short reads because I’m always pressed for time. If you’ve told the story in fewer words, perhaps you don’t need any more.

    Jace,
    Save that scene that ends up on the cutting room floor. You may be able to use it later in another novel or turn it into a short story.

  5. Yuwanda,
    So often the situation is just as you describe – the scene isn’t nearly as funny, brilliant, amazing … to the reader as it to the writer.

    Jace,
    Good idea about a companion piece – what didn’t make it into the story. :-)

  6. Lillie,
    I really appreciate the steps you list here; they’re useful for short stories as well as novels. I’ll have to copy them down and post them above my computer for quick and frequent reference :-)

    A good editor is really worth his or her weight in gold (and especially at today’s current gold standard). Like you, I can edit other writers’ writing with cold objectivity, but not my own.

    Kudos on a great entry.

    Marie Ann Baileys last blog post..For your listening pleasure

  7. Marie Ann,
    I think many of us can catch everybody’s mistakes but our own. I’m glad you found the tips helpful for short stories as well.

    Jeanne,
    While none of us can be objective about our own writing, a good writer is open to editing. I used to be listed as an editor on the site of a subsidy publishing company. While I had a number of authors contact me, I never got any business from them. It seems they really wanted me to tell them their words were golden and I couldn’t find a single thing to change. :-) When I suggested they make changes or – horrors! – cuts in their writing, I either never heard from them again or heard from them how wrong I was. It’s sad because they spent a lot of money to publish books that should never have been published as written.

  8. Jeanne,

    I am an advocate of self-publishing when the author has a platform and a marketing plan to reach his market. In fact, most of my editing clients self-publish. However, the quality of the book – from editing to cover design – has to be excellent. Too many self-published authors choose to self-publish because they want total control of the project and aren’t willing to accept advice or help.

  9. I find it funny (but disheartening) that any writer would be willing to have her story or novel published without having an editor go through it with a fine-toothed comb. Of course the reader suffers the most for the writer’s hubris, but the writer also suffers the missed opportunity of developing a close and professional relationship with someone who loves words as much as she does. Recently, I read an article about the journal One Story, and one of their published authors talked about how much the editor at One Story had helped with making his published story better than the version he had originally submitted. Her editing didn’t make the story any less his, but it did help him see his story in a new light.

    Check out this post on the Daily Writing Tips blog–http://www.dailywritingtips.com/nonstandard-usage-detracts-from-novel/. Maeve illustrates how even the editor at a traditional publishing house can be asleep at th wheel! Which makes me think that a writer would do well to have his or her work professionally edited before even sending it out for publication . . . just in case :-)

    Marie Ann Baileys last blog post..Guest bloggers at the Writer’s Resource Center

  10. Marie Ann,

    What the One Story did is exactly what a good editor should do – make the work sound just like the author, only better.

    Of course, none of us are perfect and there has never been a “perfect” book published – as indicated by the examples at Daily Writing Tips. However, authors, editors, and publishers should do everything possible to make the book the best it can be.

  11. The novel I wrote this past spring had a target of 55,000 words. It is currently resting, awaiting editing in the fall, at 63,898 words! Certainly not a horrendous length, but this article’s information will serve me well after the summer break.

    And yes, I already pity a certain scene that I fear may find itself on the cutting room floor.

    Thanks for a great start to the Guest Month!

  12. Lillie:

    I loved this back and forth about parts being too funny to cut. I’ve fallen in love with some of my words before, and then when I read them again, I’m like, “It’s funny TO ME b/c I know the back story.”

    It didn’t go over nearly as well once I saw it publicized.

    That was a point well made.

    And, as Jace alluded to, what a excellent start to the guest posting series.

    Yuwanda Blacks last blog post..How to Increase Your Blog’s Traffic with Link Bait Articles

  13. Oh don’t worry, no poor scenes will be left to die on MY cutting room floor!!

    And, with this particular novel, I already have some other stuff that I have saved away from it. Once it is published, I’ll have a very fun little collection of backstory and “deleted scenes” with which to publish a companion to it!!

  14. Lillie,

    I guess that’s one important reason why we have editors! It can be so difficult for writers to be objective about their own work (as Marie Ann states in her comment above).

    Jeanne

  15. Lillie,

    That’s an unfortunate reality. And it’s become quite prevalent with the huge number of subsidy- and self-published books on the market today. In the past, an author had no choice but to deal with an editor to get a book published; but too often that simply isn’t the case anymore.

    Jeanne

  16. Morgan,
    I think most of us get hung up with backstory. We find our characters’ histories so interesting we think the readers should as well.

  17. Lillie, this is excellent advice. I have been working on implementing many of these techniques in my personal writing – cutting out adverbs, being conscious of writing in active voice and cutting the unnecessary. It’s funny that when you’re writing your first draft it’s hard to turn off the editor but once you’ve gotten it down sometimes it’s hard to get the editor to come back. LOL!

    Karen Swims last blog post..I Am an SOB!

  18. Karen,
    You’re so right. That pesky mental editor just doesn’t cooperate! It’s there when you don’t want it and not there when you do.

  19. Lillie,

    Nice article. I have to admit that tip three is probably my weakest area. I have a deep affection for the backstory. Perhaps if I could just find a way to make it part of the story like I think Anne Rice did with her Witch series. However, I also like Jace’s idea!

    Morgans last blog post..Dowsing for Poetry

  20. Another excellent post, Lillie! A big help to me was learning about plot-driven writing. The more things keep happening in my book, the less chance the reader has to be bored. Also, the “show don’t tell” method helps cut down on wordiness, too. It takes much longer to explain that the character is tired, and why, than it does just to make her yawn and collapse into a chair . . .

    I always appreciate your advice and reminders. Thank you!

    renaes last blog post..Poor Little Rich Man

  21. Thanks, Renae. I cringe whenever I remember the first draft of my first novel. Everything was passive – all tell, no show – with every tiny detail of every activity of every day included! It’s been a long time since that novel was published, and it certainly could be greatly improved if I edited it using the experience I’ve gained in the intervening years. But It’s a whole lot better than that horrible first draft. :-)

  22. Hi, Lillie. Thank you for your informative article about paring down a too-long piece. I was blind-sided by a recent fiction novel that I edited; however, I found that once I conversed with the author regarding his audience and marketing his book, I was better prepared to read the novel. With this particular novel, I had to divide the “reader” part of me from the “editor” part–that is, even though I would not as a reader pick up this genre of novel for enjoyment, once I accepted the fact that it would speak to a certain audience outside of myself, I was better able to go through the writing and still help the author pare down with respect to overuse of “-ing” words, heavy-handedness in the message, and so on.

    I also find–and wonder whether you do, too–that successive readings of a work help me as an editor. If time allows, I prefer to go through the fiction pieces (or nonfiction, for that matter) at least a couple times. I find that I invariably discover different aspects I hadn’t before, though my editing is not so compartmentalized that I read for logic the first time, grammar the second, and so on. I might even discover that a plot device, turn of phrase, or even a character I thought was pointless on the first reading is revealed in subsequent ones to be an important MacGuffin and something I should retain in the manuscript. (This is another reason why it’s helpful for me, as an editor and a writer, to keep a physical style sheet–not something I just try to keep in my head,–for each novel or chapter.)

    To edit fiction, one must have an exceptionally deft touch, and I admire you for being able to diplomatically work with the author to improve his piece.

    Your tips are ones we as editors-as-writers, writers-as-editors, or as “only” writers or “solely” editors should bear in mind.

    Leighs last blog post..Teen-age Wasteland

  23. Maybe I’m weird, but I’ll never understand why some writers hang on to every word and get angry if editors cut them or change them. But as an editor of several newsletters, I take care in editing and explain to writers why we did this because some of them get upset when they see tracking all over their article.

    Thanks to “On Writing Well,” I’ve learned to cut many words like Lillie suggests. I got to the point where I add needless words on purpose as a joke or because it suits the situation, but I wonder if people won’t see it the same way.

    Do you really need that “really,” “very,” or “just?” The situation just calls for it sometimes :)

    Meryl K. Evanss last blog post..Write Funny: 3 Timeless Rules of Comedy That Every Writer Should Learn

  24. Leigh,
    You make some excellent points. As editors, we do have to keep the genre and audience in mind. I avoid editing genres I don’t read because I don’t know the conventions. I admire you for being able to edit something in a genre you weren’t familiar with.

    I agree with you completely that one reading isn’t enough to edit a novel (or any piece). The novel discussed in this article went through about a dozen rounds of editing. My quote for editing always includes a minimum of two rounds of edits, and usually it takes more than that. Your idea of a style sheet is excellent – I haven’t written out a formal style sheet for every book, but I keep notes and have been thinking about creating a more organized and formal document.

    Meryl,
    Explaining your edits to your newsletter writers is a great idea. When I do a sample edit for a prospective client, I write lots of comments explaining why I made the suggestions I did. I start out editing that way but usually need to do it only for a small portion of the book so the writer understands what I’m doing.

    And sometimes it’s just very, very important that you use words like very, just, and that. :-)

  25. @ Lillie, I cringe at things I wrote last month! The joy of growth! :)

    @ Meryl, I agree many writers are attached to their work. I think that the letting go comes with experience. Years ago, editing would have sent me over the edge. Now, I love the editing process as I know all of the dross will be chipped away and only the gold will remain.

    Karen Swims last blog post..Are You Ready to Get Lucky?

  26. Karen,

    I cringe at things I wrote last week. :-) But not nearly as much as I cringe at the novel I wrote 15 years ago.

  27. @Karen, I shudder to read anything I wrote in the past, too. But I can tolerate a few months ago over 15 years ago. When I read my college papers… talk about UGH!

    @Lillie, my newsletter writers aren’t full-time writers, but people who specialize in their topics. Hence, I know I need to take more care in their edits than I would most writers. You’re right that audience and genre matter. I would be a terrible editor for a market that loves very (needed here!) descriptive stories. These would probably be the ENFPs… the opposite of my ISTJ.

    I didn’t always handle edited work with the calmness I do today. It probably comes with practice and experience.

    You’re also right, Lillie — that sometimes a situation really calls for a very or just or whatever! :) They’ve been overused, but when I use them… I really mean it :)

    Meryl Evanss last blog post..Write Funny: 3 Timeless Rules of Comedy That Every Writer Should Learn

  28. Meryl,
    You do have to be especially sensitive with people who aren’t professional writers. I experience this with the church newsletter I edit. I make a point to tell anyone who submits an article that I edit everyone – even the priests (one of whom has a journalism degree and worked in media for many years before entering the priesthood). Often people who submit articles have no idea that “real” writers have their work edited and if not warned think their work must be horrible if I have to edit it.

  29. Jack,

    Many aspiring authors have the same reaction. If they see the words being cut, they insist those words have to stay. However, if they don’t know what words are removed, they don’t miss their golden prose.

  30. Hi, Lillie! Thanks for a great article. So many times in writing we’re trying to make a certain word count for submission that we add a lot of verbiage that doesn’t need to be in our story. Your three suggestions are great for cutting down a lot of what doesn’t need to be there.

  31. Lillie,
    Thanks for putting out this information. I plan to forward it to a friend who writes daily and holiday devotionals. She struggles with the use of too many words, especially those pesky adjectives!

    Not being a writer, and having only done newsletters in the past along with a few articles and letters for our literacy organization, I too have a problem with my words becoming too lengthy. I tend to “wax poetic” in hopes of getting people to see the plight of those who cannot read as well as the effects illiteracy has on our whole community. There is a lesson here for me! Thanks!

    As an avid reader I do appreciate editors and writers who prune some of the history, etc. when it does not add to their characters or story plot. I am one of those readers that skips over some of that stuff!

    Beverly

  32. Janet,
    You make a good point about sometimes padding writing to reach a certain word count. In that case, the writer needs to get rid of unnecessary verbiage but might have to add a subplot or a few scenes that advance the story.

    Nelda,
    Writers sometimes find it difficult to know how much to trust their readers. One of my clients thinks he has to continually remind readers of something that happened early in the story to be sure they remember and understand the significance of what’s happening in the current scene. Others tend to go the opposite direction and mention a critical fact one time in a way that doesn’t show how important it is, then expect the reader to understand the significance 300 pages later. There has to be a good balance.

    Beverly,
    In your writing to gain support for your literacy organization, you need to make every word count. People are so inundated with mail and e-mail that it’s hard to get their attention. However, you do have to write in a way that touches their emotions, and sometimes that requires more description than other kinds of writing.

  33. Martha,
    I just wish all writers understood that editing is designed to help make their work better, not destroy it.

  34. Mary Ann,

    I’m glad you found the article helpful. Your willingness to learn and improve your craft will move you from a beginning writer to an experienced one quickly.

  35. I like the article, Lillie! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said the readers are smart enough to avoid reiterating details. Even though the author’s feelings are tied to every word, it is not just about the words on the page but keeping the interest of the readers going.

  36. Lillie,

    I found this article very interesting and educational. An editor is really important and necessary to a writer.

  37. Excellent article. I’m a “beginning” writer and appreciate all the tips I can get. I tend to use too many adjectives at times now I know to get down and just say it without so much fluff. Will read this article over and over again. Thanks

  38. Edith,
    I’m so glad this article inspired you to work on your short stories, where every word has to count. I’ve written few short stories and admire writers who can tell a good story in a few words. Flash fiction/short-shorts amaze me.

  39. Wonderful article!

    I’m a technical writer with the desire to write short stories. I’ve half-written three such stories which remain hidden in the bottom of my desk drawer. Right now, I’m inspired to pull them out and apply the techniques you mentioned in your article to trim the fat.

  40. Jacob,

    As if Musil or Proust would take advice from me. :-)

    I’m talking about popular fiction today. Tastes and styles change through the years. What sells today is not the same as what sold a hundred years ago, and Musil’s work didn’t sell well during his lifetime.

    Even today, there are differences between literary fiction and popular fiction, even among different genres of popular fiction. Most writing, though, benefits from making every word count..

    Like anything else you read, use what you find helpful and ignore the rest.

    Thanks for commenting.

  41. Thank you, Tabish. You’re right that new writers seem to think the more flowery words they put on the page the better their writing is. Of course, wordiness sometimes afflicts us more experienced writers, also.

  42. Hi Lillie,

    As we already know we seem to be on the same wavelength with this post right now. You managed to bring across the necessary points needed very well. It is amazing (albeit a little worrying) to see how much we can chop off our writing if we only try. I shall remember this if I ever write my own novel. :-)

    Monika Mundells last blog post..Trim The Fat Of Your Words

  43. lillie,

    Thank you so much for this article. The advice will definitely come in handy for me , as I am at the end stage of my first novel.

  44. Monika,
    Yes, it is scary how much we can cut – sometimes simply by elminating the words you listed in your post and sometimes by serious surgery.

    jaime j,
    Congratulations on nearing the end of your novel. Now the work really begins – editing and revising. Good luck!

  45. Lillie,

    Thank you again for contributing this article to my guest blogger series. The response has been fantastic. I wish you all the best luck in your editing business.

  46. John,
    I’m honored to contribute to your blog, and I’ve really enjoyed reading all the other guest posts. Your guest posters have maintained the excellent quality of Writer’s Resource Center and covered a variety of interesting and informative subjects.

  47. You’re right that the first draft is often wordy, although some writers go to the other extreme and write only a bare skeleton on the first draft.

    Repetition is an important issue—some repetition can be effective but too much does reflect badly on our writing. That would be an interesting topic for another post.

  48. When you write out something, or some novel, because of ideas flowing by, it’s bound to get big. When a revision is done, it is cut down to a shorter limit. Your posts have got some excellent points on how do we cut those effectively, without effecting the content in any manner.

    I would like to reflect on how effectively do we use repetition into our writings. That leaves a bad impression, as well as lengthen the content.

  49. You must have a lovely wife with such a lovely name. :-)

    I took a novel writing class one time where the instructor said over and over again somthing that made a huge impression on me: the first draft is always “pure green dreck” but you have to write the dreck before you can turn it into something good.

    I know many people who want to be writers but who never succeed because they give up when their first attempts are less than stellar. Accept the fact that the first draft—and maybe the second and third and fourth—will probably be awful, but you need to go through that stage.

  50. I have been looking to write short children s books for about a year now and never thought I had the talent to do so, I would write 6 pages and throw it away, then do it again and again. This article made me really think, If I put the pages I throw away together, then I might just have something.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    P.S.) My wife’s name is Lillie

    Paranormals last blog post..N. Georgia Bigfoot was a hoax.

  51. Thankfully, I learned this lesson early from a friend who critiqued my work. Once I started thinking in the active voice, writing became much more fluid and just plain felt better.

    As you pointed out, objective, informative, and kind feedback is the key

    Trevs last blog post..Is the future becoming extinct?

  52. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about
    this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you
    can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that,
    this is magnificent blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  53. Piece of writing writing is also a excitement, if you be familiar with then you can write otherwise it is difficult
    to write.

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