Cutting Down Word Count

You’ve dedicated massive amounts of time and worked extremely hard on writing your novel. Now you’re sitting at your desk (or wherever you write) with a complete manuscript. The problem? It’s complete at 120,000 words or 150,000 words or an even larger word count.

Yikes. The chances of getting an agent to read past that immense word count are slim, especially if you’re a debut author. Plus, usually with such a high word count there are extraneous materials within the novel. This leads to working on cutting down the word count during the revision process.

Decreasing a novel’s word count is a headache many writers face. However, too many words can take away from the story.

Cutting down on word count doesn’t have to mean hacking your novel apart nor does it mean taking out entire scenes. What it does mean is getting rid of the words or sentences that aren’t helping your story to move along. Yes, this does include good writing. Sometimes a sentence or a paragraph is fantastically written, but if it does nothing for the story it shouldn’t be in the story.

So, what do you look for?

Telling and Showing. Most writers already know that showing is generally better than telling. But sometimes we include both telling and showing in our novel. There’s rarely a need for that. Trim the redundancy by showing without telling.

Conversation. Spoken dialogue and written dialogue are two different things. When we speak, multiple conversations can occur at once, we use non-words, and we often repeat what we or someone else has said. (Think of all the ums, uhs, likes, and ers that are used when you’re speaking to friends and family.) If this happens in writing, the conversation can stretch on for pages. To make sure this doesn’t happen keep clarity and rhythm in mind when writing dialogue. We want the conversation to flow and for readers to be able to understand us without having to reread a conversation multiple times. Think of written dialogue as an edited version of what we speak.

A second wordiness problem is having the character describe something that readers should have read someplace else. Don’t let your characters be marionettes for the plot. Let them be real, breathing, and believable. People don’t say, “My long, thick, wavy, silvery-blonde hair is sticking to my slender back in this unusually humid, hot weather that is obviously the result of global warming due to big, private, industrial corporations that only care about the bottom line and not the fact that they’re destroying our delicate ecosystems, such as coral reefs and rainforests, for future generations.”

Please don’t do that. Establish the scene first and then only use dialogue if it’s something a person would naturally say in a conversation.

Description. Be careful of detailed description. Many writers attempt to describe every little detail in a room or a park or on a flower. Most of us who try this end up with wordy descriptions that tell us information we don’t need to know or really don’t care to know. For example, saying that a burly guy shoots the protagonist in the chest gives a pretty clear picture of what’s happening. Is it necessary to know that the gun was a SR9c compact pistol that weighs twenty-three ounces?

If the specifics play into the story, then maybe it is necessary. But for most of the time we can be specific enough without drowning the reader in imagery that’s not critical to the story. A few implied words often do the trick. Let your readers fill in the blanks.

In the end…

When you’re facing cutting down word count, remind yourself that it’s about the story, not the words. To help you gain some objectivity, give yourself some distance before starting that revision process. Doing so will give you perspective and help you to keep the core conflict in mind. Subplots are great and all, as long as they don’t overwhelm the main story.

How do you handle decreasing word count?

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