Five ways to decrease your word count
Last week, I wrote about expanding your book, but another almost equally common problem is shortening it. Writing too much is easier than you think, and before you know it, you have a ton of backstory, a bunch of random scenes, unnecessary perspectives, peculiar chapters, and overexaggerated or drawn out scenes that need to be chopped, sliced, cut, or filed down.
How on Earth do you figure that one out?
Consider what perspective you’re writing in
Actually, think about whether you’re writing in first-person, third-person serial, third-person limited, objective, omniscient, etc. You have a ton of choices. If you don’t know what those are, check out my posts on writing first person and writing third person. You can also use that fancy Google tool.
So, got it? Now, this is important because by understanding your perspective, you can cut out a lot of unnecessary scenes or chapters. If you’re writing in third-person limited, for example, who are your main characters? If you absolutely need to be in Jerry’s perspective and absolutely need to have a few chapters in Sarah’s perspective, fine. But, we don’t need a chapter in Charlie’s perspective if we can offer the same if not similar information through the eyes of our main characters. Many times, it’s easier to write in someone else’s perspective just to get information out there, but what would happen to the story if you cut those things out? What would the reader know or not know? What would they miss out on? Would it matter? Is it something that the other characters find out later? If so, you might be able to chop a heavy portion out of your manuscript just by doing that because not only are you condensing the number of heads your reader is in, but you’re streamlining your plot.
Do you have unnecessary backstory?
If you have a prologue or it takes one or two chapters for the story to “begin,” I guarantee you have unnecessary backstory. If your reader has to read your prologue to understand the story, I suggest a bit of rewriting. Many readers don’t read a prologue because to them, it already happened. They want what’s happening now. So, always do your best to chop that immediately and make it easier for your reader to understand the story without it. If you think your reader “just needs to keep reading; it gets better,” pull out your scissors. There isn’t a “keep reading” mentality in every reader. Get your reader interested in chapter one. Not five. Not three. And, not the end of chapter one, either.
Now, once you performed that surgical procedure, you’ve earned your license. Go through your manuscript and think about all the information about your characters. Is the flashback to their childhood so readers can see why they love their uncle so much important? If the story is about a girl and her uncle, you don’t always have to know why she loves her uncle. What is their relationship like now? What are their problems now? What do they do for each other now? Some backstory or flashback might help, but be picky, here. Do you really need it? Are you sure? What happens if it’s cut? Is their relationship plain? If so, whether you keep that backstory or not, you have work to do on them. That shouldn’t be the case. Think with this mind. Try to be objective.
If you have backstory for a secondary or tertiary character, I can almost guarantee you can chop it all. Their backstory doesn’t matter. Or, it shouldn’t. Not if they’re not main characters. If a guy blows up a building, your reader doesn’t need to know what made him decide to do it. Your reader doesn’t need to know the abuse he might have suffered as a child. That’s a story of its own.
Look at your longer scenes or chapters and ask yourself why they’re long
Fighting scenes are common regarding length because as a writer, you don’t want it to end too fast. You don’t want your hero to win too easily. Imagine your fighting scenes like they were movie scenes. How long is this fight? Some fights have their own chapter, and although I can’t recall the book, I’ve read a fight “scene” that took up more than two chapters. Think carefully on those and try to cut it a bit if you can. Again, it’s subjective. All this stuff is subjective.
Do this with all chapters and scenes. First, consider whether they’re necessary. I’ve cut entire chapters before. It’s not uncommon. If they are, play it out and consider whether it needs as much attention as you’re giving it. Is it important enough for a chapter? How about 1,000 words? Is it important enough for 500?
Do you have any “Meanwhile . . .” chapters?
This is most common in objective or omniscient novels. If you have this in another perspective, I strongly suggest getting rid of the entire thing. You’re probably thinking of your book like a movie and while movies can pull it off successfully, books can’t. Not always. I say can’t, but I mean usually can’t. Objective/omniscient novels are very uncommon because they’re older styles of writing and are extremely hard to execute properly. They’re also a bit slower, and your average reader doesn’t like reading slow.
So, if you have a chapter that talks about something happening while your main character does something else, why? If the bit of information included in this chapter won’t be properly delivered to your main character, your main character won’t ever know but it’s key information, or if you just absolutely have to have it for whatever other reason, fine. There are always exceptions. But, think carefully on this. Very, very, very, very carefully. I’ll even throw another very in there. These chapters and scenes are difficult to toss because when you’re writing them, they are important. But, are they? What about it is so great? What will be lost if you remove the scene or chapter?
Very. I stress this because I have problems here, too, as a writer. I fight with myself on it and when I remove one of these chapters (it’s usually a chapter for me), it ends up being better. That’s not always the case, but that’s why you have four other things to look at throughout your novel.
And, simplify! Yuck
Yeah, that one. The one that involves grammar, word choice, active voice, and all that stuff writers hate thinking about. But, going through your manuscript with an eye on these can reduce your word count a lot more than you think. This trick is especially helpful if you have no idea what you could possibly delete with the above options or any others you might think of. This article on editing your manuscript will help, but here are some things to look for:
- Passive voice. Here’s an article on it.
- Adjectives. If you have “very pretty” women, the adjectival phrases can almost always be demolished (remove “very”). Naturally, you can ideally take out “pretty” and show me what pretty means, but we’re talking about reducing word count, right? That said, if it’s an adjective and describes the noun in one word or more, can you cut it? Especially if you use multiple adjectives for a noun. No, don’t cut out all adjectives. I’m not saying that. But, use your best judgment and read it with and without the adjective. Most of the time, you don’t need it.
- Unnecessary words. This is also subjective, and you’ll want to use your best judgment, but words like “that,” “very,” “the,” “just,” and most adverbs can be removed in places. If you can remove a word and the sentence doesn’t change much, do it. “He just can’t hold his bladder long enough.” I can remove “just.” “And, at some point, I expect someone to walk through the door.” I don’t need “And, at some point.” See what I’m doing? Again, it’s subjective, so cut what you think is best.
- Contractions. I love contractions. They turn two words into one word, they’re easier to read, and they’re shorter. If you have a lot of broken contractions, unbreak them. I know that’s a backward way of thinking about it, but that’s how I’m going to explain it. Turn those compound verbs into contractions!
- Condense dialogue. Dialogue tags don’t always need elaborate detail. If it’s implied who is speaking, try removing the dialogue tag completely. If your dialogue tag is a bit elaborate—”‘Bite your tongue!’ she screamed with authority.”—condense that booger. She screamed, she snapped . . . whatever. Don’t try to use fancy verbs, but use the one that makes your point.
The list could continue, and before long, I’d have a novella-sized piece of work to hand over instead of a blog post that I should go back and read but usually don’t. Hopefully, this list helps you, and if you think of something that is important and must be on the list, I’ll gladly change that number from five to six or seven or eight.
Until then, good luck cutting, and have no mercy!