Cutting Room Floor: We Need to Talk About Your Word Count

If you’ve completed the first draft of a manuscript, the idea of a word count trim shouldn’t be anything new to you. It’s probably among the top ten pieces of advice from editors, agents, writing coaches and noveling gurus everywhere. A long, long manuscript, especially from a novice writer (read: hot young talent!) can be daunting for readers, and even the fastest turners of pages will put down a book that slows down too much of the pacing or has too many damn pages left when they start to get a little, tiny bit bored.

Originally published at Writing In The Stars on January 24, 2017.

First, allow me to be persuasive, and second, let me answer that seemingly unanswerable stubborn question that might be plaguing you: But how?

You already know you need to do it. You’re sitting on a behemoth of a novel and everyone’s telling you it needs to be shorter. Complete at 150,000 words. Youch. That’s one sentence you don’t want to write in your query letter, you can trust me. Why? Because my novel is incomplete at 140,000 words, and the problem is only getting worse with every daily 1000 word writing goal. You know it needs to happen, you just need to be talked into it. Well, here you go:

5 Reasons to Cut Your Word Count

1. There’s an ideal length:

Whether you’re writing for independent publishing or polishing that baby off to send it to an agent and traditional publisher, there’s such thing as an ideal length for a novel, especially for novice writers. It’s 80,000–90,000 words. Shorter manuscripts tend to end suddenly without proper resolution and readers can’t get no satisfaction (i.e., cliff hanger or lack of falling action). Longer manuscripts begin to drag, slowing the pacing down. In the hands of a master, unwieldy word counts can comprise true art, but we all need to start somewhere. Those masters start out by drafting unwieldy lengths as they find their voice, their story, their themes and their flaws — and then they trim to remove all the unnecessary faults.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” — attributed to Ricky Gervais, cartoonist Scott Adams, Douglas Adams.

110,000 words is where your novel becomes defined as “epic” or “saga.” Not ideal for a first time writer.

2. Be left with only the best:

It’s easy to fall in love with every word you ever write. But unless you’re some kind of superhuman, some sentences are going to be superior to others. Trim the worst ones. Trim the useless ones. Trim the purposeless ones. And then trim some of the mediocre ones and the decent ones, too, because there’s only so many hours in a day and I’ve got a Goodreads challenge to complete fifty books this year, don’t you?

3. Drafting takes discovery:

Every writer “discovers” the story as they’re writing it. While we say there are writers who outline and writers who discover, an outline is not a novel, it’s a list of bullet points, and even planners still need to fill in the spaces and connect the dots to find out where the scene goes. Outliners or planners (as opposed to pantsters, those who do not plan but write from the seat of their pants, as we call them in NaNoWriMo) have described the phenomenon of the characters taking over the story, the plot taking on a life of its own, the journey veering in an unexpected direction. It happens to the best of us, and it ends up taking more and more words to figure out the kinks, to get the story back on track, to wade through the muck to get to what’s really important to the core of the story. But sometimes it takes significantly more words to discover the story than it does to tell it. Remember that readers don’t like to be spoon-fed; they don’t need too much repetition or over-narration. Fluffy, nonessential or extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters fail to engage readers to keep reading. They may have been necessary to you as the writer to get to the bottom of what the heck is going on here, to solve the mystery, to uncover a tragic hero’s backstory, to figure out why this crazy character is acting the way she is, but that doesn’t make each of those words necessary to the reader understanding it.

4. Something better might come along:

To make the story as engaging and interesting as possible, constantly providing the reader with new scenes, settings, facts, interactions, actions, surprises and so on, you may need to replace “fluffy” scenes or paragraphs, and you might find what you’re inspired to write as a replacement to be even longer than what you had in the first place. To keep the pacing stable, you need to make sacrifices. Start with the low hanging fruit to make cuts, and leave room for future inspiration booms.

5. Agents and editors look for writers who know how to self-polish:

Sad though it is, literary agents have a hundred manuscripts in the slush pile, and a hundred queries in the good old email inbox. They are looking for any excuse to cut their stack down, and an unwieldy word count is a very quick litmus test for a writer who needs to get better at editing.

I don’t want to end on this note, because fear is not a good motivator. Don’t do it because you’re afraid every agent who sees “complete at 144,000 words” in your query is going to hit delete and read no further to get to your excellently crafted query hook and embedded samples of your writing and the fantastic twist you snuck in there. Do it because cutting your word count by 30% will leave you with the best novel possible every time. In my creative editing work, I strive to be honest about this in response to every chapter in every manuscript, simply because every writer loves his or her writing, loves every part of it, every word and sentence, but entertaining ourselves isn’t the goal here. Let’s make it as entertaining as possible for the audience.

That’s nice and all, but how do you cut your word count without hacking the story away to tiny itty bitty useless meaningless pieces? It’s easy:

5 Ways to Cut Your Word Count

1. Cut the summary:

Remember that low hanging fruit I mentioned? Some of that low hanging fruit takes the form of what you “tell” the reader, rather than “showing” the reader. Call it the balance between scene and summary. Scene is the action, the dialogue, even the description; everything that’s visual, everything that happens. It’s what readers visually see in their heads as if they’re watching a movie. Summary, the part that we tell, is weaved into the scene like filler. It comes between the actions your characters take, in between what happens, to explain what’s going on to the audience. Why is this crazy character acting that way? Remember that telling is as if you just told a funny joke and no one got the punch line, so you’re explaining the joke. Don’t do it. Or, do it when you’re drafting, but remove it in the later draft.

Removing summary can often give you a ten percent trim of the paragraph without even blinking, and only the weakest words bit the dust.

2. Condense descriptions:

Description is a part of scene, it’s visual and it can be very engaging; however, there’s only so much description that’s really necessary before the reader’s imagination takes over, and that’s a good thing for everyone! If you have a genius setting description and every word of it is the most lovely wording to ever grace the page, then by all means, keep it. But setting has a tendency to sound stale and unimaginative. For example, here’s a boring description of a restaurant: “La Oaxacana was a brightly lit restaurant with many windows letting in sunshine. Beyond the hostess station were four rows of ten four person tables with white table cloths. The only Mexican decorations were red and white falsa blankets hanging on the walls; the walls were white, and the pillars were a dark black wood like balsam or black walnut.” It’s not even that long, but it’s plenty unnecessary. And yes, I’ve read published fiction with description that reads like this. You might even find some in your own manuscript if you look hard enough. Ask what’s really necessary to paint the picture in readers’ minds, and keep only the bare minimum — or the crucially beautiful if you’ve got it.

3. Tighten your writing:

Read Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Or skip it and just memorize the following paragraph:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Memorize it and repeat it to yourself before you sit down to revise. Every time. Tattoo “but that every word tell” on your writing hand. Don’t get up to 150,000 words just because you’re wordy and have unnecessary words. Here’s a tip to try: challenge yourself to cut one paragraph from every page, one sentence from every paragraph, and one word from every sentence. If you really can’t, it’s probably because you’re awesome. Maybe you did it perfectly the first time. But if you didn’t get it right in the first draft, take a stab at shortening your writing by vigorously aiming at a word cut quota.

Remember to cut out all of your adverbs. All the masters say to do it, and it’s basically cheating.

4. The big picture — How can you simplify the story?

Too many characters? Too many subplots? Scenes that don’t contribute to the plot? Consider killing some of your darlings.

Or save them for another book or a short story. Start a sequel, just pile those deleted scenes into something new, or do what Brandon Sanderson does and publish them on your website for your adoring fans. Cutting sounds harsh. Don’t cut it, just move it and recycle it.

5. Divide your book into acts to determine what’s dragging:

This is a really important one to end on. If you follow a four act structure, you can determine whether any particular part of your novel is dragging on too long by dividing the novel in four. Divide in the four moments of the four act structure: after the inciting incident turns into the first pinch, after the first time the hero fails to set everything right, after the stakes are raised and the hero fails a second time. And then after they succeed or fail at the end of the novel. Put each section in a separate document and check out the word counts. Are they roughly the same? You might find that one is substantially longer than others. Maybe you took a long time warming up in the beginning. Maybe it took a lot of words to figure out how the story should end (guilty) and the final act goes on and on forever. Make most of your trims from the section with the longest word count.

BONUS: Take out repetition of events readers already know about. If the inciting event is that your protagonist murders his mother, you probably repeat that fact a million times. The pain of her death still hurts him. He has nightmares about it. He fears getting caught. That’s all good, but it doesn’t need to be repeated a million times. It comes out in the draft as you establish to yourself over and over the reason and motive behind the protagonist’s actions, but readers get it. Matricide sucks. That’s going to be a tragedy. Stop telling us that. Stop telling what we already know, what we all already know as humans. Easy hundreds of words to cut.

What are your pro tips for word cutting? Some writers tell me they like their longwinded style and won’t change it for the world. Is it really necessary for every writer? Can we be vigorous concise writers on the first draft? You tell me.