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.