Thursday, April 26, 2012

When you need to trim that word count

photo by katerha via flickr
I'm working on the finished (pre revision letter) manuscript for my debut historical novel for WaterBrook. At my agent's advice, I've been busy the past few weeks trimming off another 10,000 words. I thought I'd share some tips for trimming back a long, sprawling first draft--or even a fairly tight sixth or seventh draft, which is what I've been doing with my novel before my deadline.

Assuming you've already looked at the macro issues, evaluating every scene to be sure it's needful to tell the story, and you've cut out every scene that isn't, but still need to bring that word count down... here's how I go about it:

To start with, there are ways to "see" your manuscript with fresh and objective eyes. The following are the best ways I've found to spot words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that aren't contributing enough to the story to justify their inclusion.
~ Take time away from the manuscript to let it cool off. Weeks. Months, if possible.
~ Convert the manuscript into a different font, so the paragraphs and lines are arranged differently than you're used to seeing.
~ If you use Word, try viewing the manuscript in Full Screen Reading mode. It allows you to view two pages on the screen at once. It also changes the length of lines and thus the page arrangement.
photo by abbybatchelder via flickr creative commons

Next, read the manuscript slowly, evaluating every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph.

Cut out needless adverbs, adjectives.

Trim back large chunks of description. I know a writer who never uses more than two consecutive sentences of pure description in a row. Not a bad rule of thumb.

Trim back long sequences of introspection wherever possible.

See if a scene can begin a few sentences later than it does. Or end a few sentences earlier. I'm always surprised, even after several edits of a story, that this is still the case in some of my scenes.

Cut out chit-chat from dialogue exchanges. And cut out any needless rambling. Let the characters get to the point as soon as possible.

Search and destroy clutter words.  Cut as many occurrences of that, but, and, just, very, quite, rather, had been, and any other unnecessary words you are prone to using as possible (those listed are mine). I also do a search for "of the" which is a highly overused phrase for me and can usually be replaced. Example: the cover of the book can be changed to the book's cover. There. Two words saved. It may not seem like much, but edit out "of the" often enough and it adds up. The only time I leave "of the" now is when changing it would ruin the rhythm of the sentence or obscure its meaning.

Which brings me to my second step after I've gone through the entire manuscript reading it silently, cutting out as many words and sentences as possible:

Read the manuscript again, this time aloud. This is a crucial, if tiring, step in my editing process. Not only will you catch misspellings your eyes have skimmed over, you'll catch bumps in rhythm, awkward phrasing, and more unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences that can go to the cuts file.

You do keep a cuts file? :) I never send anything into the ether that's longer than a phrase. You never know (she says optimistically) when that metaphor or poetic imagery or quippy bit of dialogue might be useful elsewhere.

photo by muffet via flickr
If you're at all mathematically inclined, divide the total number of words you want to cut from the manuscript by the number of chapters the manuscript includes. This will give you an approximate number that needs to be cut from each chapter. I find these smaller goals less overwhelming, and sometimes will camp out on a chapter until I've cut at least that number of words. But not always. Not every chapter needs as much cutting as the next might.

Hope these tools for trimming back prose prove helpful!

Do you have other tips for cinching up a story belt? Please share them in the comments section.


  1. Goodness, Lori! That's a good list. I've never finished a novel, but I did do a lot of this with my two devotionals. It's time consumming work, but necessary--especially the reading out loud one. ; )

    1. I find reading out loud exhausting. I've gained even more respect for audio books readers since I began incorporating this step in my writing process. Especially those like Davina Porter and others who do so many wonderful accents. Many of my characters have accents, and I try to use them when I read aloud. Have you ever noticed how differently you use your mouth depending on which accent you're speaking with? Did I mention how exhausting that is after a few hours straight? :)

  2. Even though it takes a lot of paper, I find printing the pages helps me see the words in a new way. Highlighting and writing in the margins helps too. :)

    1. It does take a lot of paper, but you're right. That's another great way of seeing things you miss on screen. I print off chapters and read them on hard copy while I'm working on the first draft. Sometimes with subsequent drafts too. Thanks for mentioning that! I'd put that in my list under ways to see your manuscript with fresh eyes.