Hey friends! I’ve been promising this post since … um…. last fall? So yeah, I’m a year late and many dollars short, but I’ve decided to copy and paste the rough version of a file I often share with CPs, mentees, and fellow writers looking for a quick and dirty crash course in cutting words and tightening prose. Whether your manuscript is too long or not, I hope you find something in here helpful! This post isn’t super polished, but if I wait for time to do that, it might take me another year, so here goes nothing!
Alternate title: Trimming Wordcount, tightening prose, cutting redundant scenes or dialogue, and “concentrating” the goodness of the story!
Okay, so maybe your manuscript is too long. Or maybe it isn’t, but you feel like it reads a little slow. Or readers like the plot but it takes them a while to connect with your character. Or maybe you just have that sense that something isn’t clicking on the line level and you don’t know what it it. Or maybe none of that is true, but you’re always eager and hungry for tips anyway (good for you!)
At the risk of calling out my Pitchwars mentee from last year (hey, she called me out for saying I was going to post this and never doing it, so fair’s fair! Love you, Lyssa!!!) she entered with a manuscript she’d already cut down from 130k to 108k and while she knew it was still a bit long for querying she didn’t know how she could possibly cut more scenes without ruining the book. And she was right! She couldn’t cut a bunch more scenes, but she could cut a lot of words. And she did. Wooooooow, did she! I threw all the information below at her (and more) and she rose to the challenge, cutting that 108k down to 83k by the showcase without cutting a single scene! Yes, you read that right! Heck, she added scenes! I know, right?!
What? How? Is that possible? Yes!
Think about it. A challenge like cutting 10,000 words from a 100,000k manuscript sounds daunting until you realize it’s about 20 words per page. Bonus, if you end up cutting a scene or combining two scenes, you can easily whack a few hundred or a thousand words in one fell swoop.
First, let’s talk about line-level edits. There are many ways and reasons to cut wordcount that go beyond big cuts and you might be surprised by just how much can be done on the line level to serve multiple goals: tightening prose, improving pacing, bringing out your authorial voice and your character’s voice, and of course, cutting those words.
Like all writing advice, there are no absolutes, there are no rules that can’t be broken, and I am not telling you what to do. I’m just telling you what has worked for me, my former mentee, and many others. Take it or leave it. Your methods may vary. All the usual disclaimers, etc.
Overused words that often aren’t needed:
Cut as many “that/just/probably/maybe/might have/began to/slightly” as you can. As with most things, exceptions for dialogue.
Complete sentences are overrated.
Little tweaks like swapping “It was showtime!” for “Showtime!” cuts a three-word sentence down to one word, and, in my opinion, sounds more voicey too. After all, people don’t think in complete sentences. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I don’t think, “That man is a jerk!” I think, “Jerk!” Same for contractions. We were all taught to avoid them as kids, and we were taught wrong. Contractions are great. They add a casual element to voice and reduce wordcount with almost zero effort. Heck, you can even “replace all” but be sure to go back and double check whether any should be switched back for stylistic or clarity reasons.
Past progressive phrasing:
Ex: “was/is + a verb” (“I was singing, he is sitting, she was walking”) and swap it for “I sang/he sits/she walked,” unless it changes the meaning or you need it for emphasis.
Ex: I looked at the tall boy who was sitting at the piano -> I looked at the tall boy sitting at the piano (possibly even better? Cut those filtering words and just tell the reader A tall boy sat at the piano.)
Of course, sometimes you need past progressive! Ex of a good use: “I was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen when we first heard the war was over.”
As with most things, sometimes it’s necessary, but a lot of the time, you don’t need it.
Phrases that can be simplified:
It’s usually obvious what body part is doing an action or how an action works (I nodded my head, I stood up, I sat down) so cut it to the basics (I nodded, I stood, I sat)
-Watch for places you use a dialogue tag and an action tag and ask yourself whether an action tag can do it alone.
“Oh, no,” he said, standing up from his chair. Vs. “Oh, no.” He stood.
She nodded her head in agreement vs. She nodded.
Duplicate actions, descriptions, etc.
Similarly, look for places where characters perform more than one action but the two actions serve a similar function, and ask yourself if one of those actions is effective enough alone. If so, cut the other. If not, is there a different word that could convey the information more effectively than the original two?
He walked slowly -> He strolled.
She quickly reached to pick up a pen. -> She grabbed a pen.
They giggled, clutching their sides as tears of joy rolled down their cheeks.
“Giggled, clutching their sides, and tears of joy” all basically convey the same thing to readers, so you can cut at least one without changing the impact. You don’t have to, and sometimes, you want to use more than one to create a heightened mood, but there are times when less is more. It just depends!
Watch out for “stage directions”
Stage directions are where writers describe all the little movements of a character, especially common in first person. Cut as many as possible. You the author may need to know exactly what every character is doing, where they are standing, that the door is in the far left corner, etc, but odds are good that your readers do not. This details are important in a screenplay, but not so much in a book. You rarely need to tell readers that someone stood up AND then walked across the room. If they’re walking across the room, we assume they stood first.
Ex: She bent over and reached down to pick up a hat from the floor-> She picked up a hat from the floor.
Showing AND Telling
We writers talk a lot about showing versus telling, but often, as we get better at showing, we forget to stop telling and end up doing both. And while there are great times to show and great times to tell, there are fewer times where your reader needs both at the same time. (I am very guilty of this in early drafts!)
Ex: Character A sees Character B walking by. B is described in a way that suggests she’s beautiful, we see him staring in awe and tripping over stuff, and then the writer includes a line saying, “She was so gorgeous, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her.” That last line isn’t needed as long as we trust our readers to get the subtext based on Char A’s behavior just before it. Or, say, a character is described as staring longingly at a pie in a store window. We don’t also need to be told that he’s hungry, his mouth is watering, and he hasn’t eaten all day. The author showed a clear signal that he’s hungry and all those smart readers get it without being told directly.
Descriptions (Trim, baby, trim!):
Unless it’s really important for readers to stop and picture something, it’s worth looking out for places where descriptions stand alone. Many time when there’s a line that’s JUST a description, or even more so, a paragraph that’s just description, it slows down the pacing and adds to the word count. Especially in the opening pages of a book when there is so much to accomplish and you want readers to connect with the characters are soon as possible, the “page real estate” is too valuable to spend most of it on descriptions. (Don’t come at me! I love descriptions! Again, YMMV! But working descriptions into the action can be a great way to preserve them while making each sentence work harder!) Also, too-long books are harder to sell because they cost more to print, and in a time when people have shorter attention spans than ever, we don’t want to risk losing their attention by spending too much page space on descriptions that aren’t moving the story forward. Instead, try to sprinkle descriptors in with actions.
A woman strolled into his line of sight. The moonlight highlighted the curves of her body as her hips swung with every step. She wore a blue silk dress and her blond hair was curled into tight ringlets. She brushed a curl from her cheek and smiled. (47 words)
A woman strolled into sight, hips swinging with every step. The moonlight caressed every curve, gleaming on blue silk. She smiled, brushing a blonde ringlet from her cheek. (28 words)
Repetition (see, I’m repeating myself even as I advise you not to. No one’s perfect, and this blog post sure isn’t!)
Watch for places where you repeat information, including but not limited to emotions or observations. We often don’t even realize we’re doing it, but a close read can reveal two or more lines on a page that basically describe the same thing twice or tell readers information they already know. (Again, guilty as charged! Fixing this is a major part of all of my first revision passes!)
Trust readers to read between the lines. Often, we are so worried that readers won’t “get” something or “feel” something that we whack them over the head with it, when one line or even one word is enough to clue them in and they can—and will!—fill in the rest, and be more satisfied because they did it for themselves. Movie example: The hand flex from Pride and Prejudice has more impact than a 5-minute monologue ever could. Trust yourself to have done the work to set readers up, and trust them to figure out you’re your context clues mean!
I’ll pop back in and tidy this up later or add anything I forgot to, but I hope something in here is helpful! Happy trimming!