The other day, I wrote on my author’s blog about editing down a novel to get word count within the proper guidelines. You can read that post here.

One of the things I talked about was how my novel, in the first draft form, was a little over 120,000 words, which meant I needed to cut between 22-24,000 words from it for the genre and style of the novel. I knew when I wrote it I would have to cut it. It was, after all, a 2006 NaNoWriMo novel. For those unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it’s a self-challenge ‘contest’ to write a novel in 30 days. To do that, we have to focus more on just writing for the sake of writing than for the sake of the story. This meant there were a lot of filler scenes in that weren’t necessary for the story at all. Those were decently easy to cut out.

The hard part was cutting scenes I really liked. For example, there was a wedding scene that was beautiful. Sadly for the book, that scene just wasn’t necessary.

That’s what I want to talk to you about today: cutting the fat of your novel.

How to Edit to Reduce Word Count:

1. The first step in reducing word count in a novel is to look for the linking verbs and wordiness they cause. To understand the linking verb and wordiness issues, you can read this blog post about them. The brief explanation here is, when you remove linking verbs and the progressive forms of verbs, you can reduce word count.

Example: He was walking. Vs. He walked. — She was talking. Vs. She talked.

If you remove all instances of these in your novel, you might lost a few words in your word count.

2. Remove Superfluous THATs. I wrote about ‘that’ here on this blog. It’s not that it’s never proper to use the word that, but most of the time, it’s not necessary. Try reading any sentence with the word ‘that’ in it, and if the sentence makes sense without the ‘that’, remove it.  If you remove all the unnecessary ‘that’s in your novel, you can lower your total word count.

3. Remove extraneous prepositional phrases. Sometimes, a prepositional phrase is simply not necessary. For example, in #2, I wrote: “…but most of the time, it’s not necessary to use it.” – You see the prepositional phrase ‘to use it’ is not necessary since I’d already said ‘to use’ in the first part of the sentence. That prepositional phrase can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.

4. If you’ve ever heard the saying and believed it, “Never end a sentence with a preposition”, chances are you never really learned the rule. It’s not wrong to end a sentence in a preposition sometimes. The problem is ending the sentence with an UNNECESSARY preposition. The next time someone says to never end a sentence with a preposition, tell them they are wrong, because they are. However, you can remove extraneous prepositions. This is slightly different than the phrases, in that I’m saying to only remove the preposition itself. This usually happens at the end of the sentence, and the preposition is not necessary. For example: “Where are you going to?” VS. “Where are you going?” – “Where’s my hat at?” Vs. “Where’s my hat?”

5. Remove adverbs. Okay, I’m not going to go overboard and say you should remove all adverbs. I will, however, step out on a limb and say it’s likely you should remove most of them. Adverbs are lazy writing. You need to learn not to depend upon them. It’s sort of like the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. When you use an adverb, you’re telling the reader how to interpret something instead of showing them and letting them connect their own emotion to it.

Have you ever read a book in which you were unable to feel anything for the characters, that no matter how you tried, you found it hard to empathize? If so, it’s likely the author who wrote the piece was doing more telling than showing and probably used a lot of adverbs.

Let me see if I can give you a really bad example here.

“He lightly touched her skin.” Vs. “His touch was feather light.” ==which one really paints a better word picture for you?

How about this: “He looked cautiously at the box.” There really is no way to ‘look cautiously’, and that tends to be one of the biggest problems with adverbs. They are cheats, easy ways to write your way out of a scene, but they really don’t convey the emotion you want. In this instance, the man is worried the box is dangerous. Does that sentence convey that?

Also, adverbs usually tell the reader how you want them to feel. But the problem with that is, not all readers will come to your story and walk away from it with the same meaning or feeling as you. Your goal as a writer is not to spoon feed the reader. Your goal is to lay out the sumptuous feast and let the reader decide what morsels of food to put in his mouth. Adverbs are spoon feeding. Give them the scene, show it to them, and let the reader put their own ‘adverbs’ in the story.

“He glanced askew at the box, careful not to touch it until he inspected it further.”

6. Remove unnecessary dialogue tags. He said, she said, he asked… it really shouldn’t get much more complicated than those four things, and even the ‘asked’ part is a bit too much, since the question mark should clearly show this. Dialogue should only be tagged when you have a scene with more than two people talking and it might be unclear who is speaking, or when there are only two people speaking, but their dialogue is long (they are talking a lot) but the sentences they are saying are short. Every once in awhile in the long dialogue, you’ll want to put a tag to remind the reader who is speaking.

However, please, please, please avoid using adverbs to describe how a person talks. That’s lazy and cheating. If you are tagging dialogue with speakers and you want to relay emotion or intonation to the reader because it further develops the character, great, do it, but not with a dialogue tag.

Example:

“Where are you going?” Tom asked.

“I thought I’d take a drive,” she replied.

“Where?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged.

“Can I come with you?”

“No,” she said, drawing the word out until it tapered softly at the end.

“Why not?”

She sighed and closed her eyes. She opened them again and looked at him. Her voice was flat when she said, “Fine, you can come.”

……

You’ll note I did not tag the questions Tom was asking, because the new paragraph indicates a speaker change, so we know it’s Tom speaking. No reason to say it. Also note that when I want to tell the reader something about HOW ‘she’ spoke, I did it in narrative, without resorting to an adverb. At the end, I was able to say her voice was flat (eg: she spoke flatly) but the way I did it, the reader is simply more engaged.

If you constantly use adverbs to describe how people are doing things, your readers feel force fed the emotion instead of showing it to them and letting it unveil itself as the scene progresses. Don’t be lazy. If you catch yourself using an adverb, ask yourself how you could say the same thing in a stronger way, a more emotive way, or a more ‘showing’ way, and let your reader visual it and connect with it.

LAST EDITING TO LOWER WORD COUNT ADVICE:

This is the last and hardest part of the editing process for me. You can do this at any time in the process, but for me, I wait until the end of the grammar edits and proofing before I take my knife and start cutting and carving away at the story. The reason is, if I get all the editing done and I start carving, I’m a lot less likely to rewrite. The novel is written. It’s time to remove and tweak, not add to. Step #7 is to take a good, hard, honest look at your novel and remove anything that doesn’t 1) directly further the plot or 2) tell us something about a character that we absolutely need to know (character development). If a scene, a paragraph, a line, or even a single word doesn’t do either 1 or 2, you must cut it from the novel. Sadly, you’re likely not the best person to decide if something meets 1 or 2, so you need to find some good beta readers, hopefully ones familiar with writing and editing, and ask them to help you carve up your baby.

I’ll give you a bonus tip: After you finish writing your novel, walk away from it for AT LEAST one month before you begin carving it up. You won’t be able to carve it up if you are too close to it. A year 1/2 after I wrote WHAT BROTHERS DO, I was finally able to slice out whole scenes. Prior to that time, I felt I needed every one of them. Today, it’s a 97,000 word novel (it started at over 120k), and it’s a much stronger, faster paced, better written piece of literature because of it.

Happy editing.

Keep writing.

Love and stuff,
Michy

PS: This advice works for short stories too.