Okay, so you’ve glanced at the more credible websites on proposed novel lengths. Or maybe you’ve even gone so far as to research your dream agents to find they expect a novel in your genre to be shorter. (Find some handy links re genre word count expectations below)
If right now you’re panicking over cutting 10,000, maybe even 20,000 words, I’m here to tell that if you truly need to do it, you can.
This post is mainly to newer authors seeking an agent. If you’re publishing regularly, you’re probably not as worried about word count. But if you’re a new writer, you should be concerned with industry standards on the topic.
My first novel was 145,000 words. Was it published? No way! Of course, I’ve never queried it. I finished it, started my second novel the next day, and soon realized how wordy my first one was. It’s now down to 105,000, and it wasn’t hard to accomplish once I recognized my patterns. I haven’t looked at it in two years, but with the kind of clarity such a hiatus from it will bring, I hope to lop off another 15,000 soon without hyperventilating.
Of course, this was after I shared that novel with two friends. Both said it was wordy.
“I know!” I wailed in my sporadically italicized YA teen-protagonist voice. “But which words are the wordy ones? If I could tell that on my own, I wouldn’t have written them!”
Luckily for me, those friends were both college professors and were able to articulate a few spots where I was specifically wordy. This helped me see my patterns, and I’m forever grateful.
Tip 1: Before you begin whittling down those pages, assess where you are in the process and react accordingly. Don’t start cutting haphazardly. Think holistically about the needs of the project.
a. Are you still writing the first draft, but you’ve realized it’s shaping up to be way too long? My advice—don’t even consider shortening it. Just keep writing. Don’t do anything to slow the process! You’ll revise later—(spoiler)—many, many times.
b. Have you completed the manuscript? You can think about reducing the wordiness, but your first main edit should be on the macro level, related to overall content, plot, and continuity. Cut out unnecessary scenes, snip extra plot threads you never wove into the story, and attend to any glaring wordiness that doesn’t gum up the revision momentum. (Remember, we don’t want to waste time micro-editing or perfecting one line if that line may never appear in the final draft!)
c. Have you revised a few times, but you’re still plagued by a high word count? This is the time to look for patterns, purple prose, and needless backstory or exposition. Now you can start the micro-editing.
Tip 2. So now you’re ready to revise for wordiness. Begin by outlining, if you haven’t yet. This doesn’t need to be an extensive outline. What’s the major point of each chapter, how does it move the plot along, etc.? Once you know this, you can cut or reduce scenes that don’t further the plot. Ask yourself—does this backstory slow down the pacing?
But I get it. I really do. That scene with the stolen harpsichord really shows the character’s quirkiness! And it’s your favorite passage! Great. Can you take the few best turns of phrase and work them into a scene that is critical? And your prologue— has it become unnecessary because everything contained in it has also been covered in the novel?
Tip 3. Donate, don’t delete, what you cut on the macro level. Cut those extra scenes or bits of backstory, but give yourself the permission to write a sequel, prequel, or supplemental content for your author platform with that content. You’ll find yourself much less traumatized by cutting something if you know it’s not actually being deleted. It’s like when you realize you simply have to let go of dear old deceased Aunt Ester’s bowling shoe collection, but you can’t bear to see those colorful shoes on the curb. It’s easier to let them go if you’re donating them, because then you know they’ll have a new chance to be appreciated.
Now you’re not abandoning those extra scenes, storylines, or subplots. You’re repurposing them in a new, cheerful, file labelled “sequel/website ideas.” When your fans come clamoring for content, barely able to wait for your next novel, you’ll be able to blog about the unknown backstory of your fascinating characters! Also, when you’ve revised again and forgotten those passages even existed, you’ll realize how much lighter you feel without them. (Sorry, Ester. But I needed my closet back!)
Tip 4. Spot your wordiness patterns. To do this, read a few pages aloud. What words do you hear repeated? Jot them down, then start doing document searches. Remove or replace with better synonyms. (Some of my go-tos are “actually,” “just,” and “really.” I’d like to blame the YA voice, but really, it’s actually just my own problem.)
Do you have long passages where your characters simply discuss and/or figure things out? Try just relating the realization without wading through every possibility. Of course, this is genre specific. You might need some extended sleuthing or deduction scenes in a mystery, or some fun, guessing-game banter in a chapter book that engages kids with puzzles or poems.
Can you remove needless prepositional phrases?
Did you make the same point at the beginning and ending of your paragraph? We really don’t need topic sentences in fiction, not even in the narrative.
Did you qualify things that don’t need to be qualified? “It felt a little spooky” is stronger when you say, “It felt spooky.”
Do you have clunky or repetitive dialogue patterns? How about extra speech tags and unnecessary rejoinders? I cut a thousand words from Novel # 1 just by fixing these:
“Sure I do,” said Kevin, reaching for the chips. “Of course I love you. I love you beyond all space and time.”
Kevin reached for the chips. “Of course I love you. Beyond all space and time.”
Tip 5. Yup. Lastly, I’m going to say it—trust your reader. If you do, you can cut out the unnecessary blow by blows such as she opened the drawer, removed the knife, and began cutting up the pie. Just say she cut the dang pie! The first two phrases add nothing. Unless, of course, instead of opening a drawer, she lifted up one foot to remove a switchblade from the heel of an old bowling shoe she found at Goodwill before cutting that pie. Now that, you might want to keep.
You will also, if you trust the reader, avoid wordy transitions from one scene to the next, avoid the need to explain why characters didn’t make alternative choices or deductions, and avoid constant repetitions of the characters’ motivations.
You can reduce your word count. Really. But before you start hyphenating every possible compound noun or replacing your catchy chapter titles with numerals, just breathe. If you’ve edited a great deal, and your book is simply much longer than industry standards, it may be that you won’t sell this one first. Edit and tighten, but don’t amputate a novel if it truly needs to be in the body it’s in. Treasure it for now as you write the next, and keep moving forward.
Thanks for reading my far-too-wordy post on reducing wordiness! If this was helpful, check out my more detailed posts on writing distinct dialogue and tightening prose.