5 Ways I Trimmed Word Count

I have a very strained relationship with word counts. I’m a chronic over-writer, so I usually have to cut thousands of words between the first and final draft. In can feel like pulling teeth, but many of these tricks will also make your prose stronger.

So why do you need to cut words, anyway?

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Your sprawling epic fantasy may really be a 230,000 word novel. But the traditional publishing industry has expectations on book size. In particular, word count affects page count, which affects printing cost, which cuts into profit margins.

NYT Bestselling authors can generally ignore these rules, but a debut author does so at their own risk.

If your goal is traditional publishing, you can bet those agents are paying attention to your word count in your query letter. And don’t think of omitting any mention of your word count, either — that’s as much (if not more) of a red flag as a high or low count.

If you’re aiming for self-publishing, there’s more wiggle room in your word count, especially if you’re only publishing in e-book formats. But if you’re planning to offer print books, a longer page count leads to a higher printing cost. This means you’ll need to either increase your retail price or accept a lower profit margin.

What should my word count be?

You’ll find some varied info on this, but Writer’s Digest has a pretty good list here.

So what are my best tricks to cut out those words?

1. Common extraneous words to delete.

“That”, “started to”, “completely”, and many more words/phrases can be given the “find word, delete word” treatment. I cut thousands of words from my manuscript with Diana Urban’s list of 43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately. Run a search for each of these and go through every instance to see which ones can be removed.

It’s tedious, but it both makes your prose stronger and shortens your word count.

2. Remove dialogue tags and excessive action beats.

This one is also mentioned in Diana Urban’s article, but I’d like to emphasize it that action beats can become excessive as well.

Not every bit of dialogue needs a “he said” or “she replied”. Likewise, not every statement needs an action to go with it. I’m particularly guilty of both.

Example:

Viola plucked the keys from the nightstand. “Come on, it’s already past five.”

“It’s fine,” Damien said.

“Don’t ‘it’s fine’ me.” She shook the keys. “Let’s go.”

He crossed his arms. “You’re being difficult.”

Viola yanked the door open. “We’ll see who’s difficult when we have to explain to your mother why we’re late,” she grumbled.

Some tags removed:

Viola plucked the keys from the nightstand. “Come on, it’s already past five.”

“It’s fine,” Damien said.

“Don’t ‘it’s fine’ me. Let’s go.”

“You’re being difficult.”

Viola yanked the door open. “We’ll see who’s difficult when we have to explain to your mother why we’re late.”

The first example has 56 words, the second has 46. That may not seem like much, but doing a full pass of this on your whole novel can trim a lot of words and tighten up your prose in the bargain.

3. Reduce repetitive sentences.

This is one of my particular tics. I often repeat the same sentence twice, but worded differently to test out various phrasing. It’s so pervasive, I don’t even notice I’ve done it until I start revising.

Example:

The garden was redolent with the scent of a hundred flowers. The cloying fragrance of dozens of blossoms choked her.

Fix:

The garden was redolent with the choking scent of a hundred flowers. (Move the single new detail from the second sentence into the first, then remove the rest.)

4. Get rid of filter words.

Filter words are my arch-nemesis. “Feel/felt”, “Hear/heard”, “See/saw”, “Notice/noticed”. They spring up like vermin throughout my novel and I’m always playing whack-a-mole with them.

As a general rule, trim these out. They weaken prose and create a minor point-of-view (POV) violation by reminding your reader of the presence of the main character.

When we read, we tend to sink into the head of the POV character until we are living, breathing, and experiencing their story firsthand. But as soon as you throw a filter word in there, you’re reminding the reader “this isn’t you” and breaking that sense of immersion.

Example:

She placed a hand on the door. The frame felt rough to the touch. She could hear the guards approaching.

Fix:

She placed a hand on the door’s rough wooden frame. The sound of the approaching guards echoed down the hall.

5. Cut entire scenes or characters or subplots

This is a bit of a “nuke it from orbit” option, but it can both trim words and tighten up your story.

Every scene should move something in your story forward, usually character development or progress in a plot line.

Take a good long look at each scene in your story. Ask yourself if anything in your plot has changed between the beginning and end of it.

I cut one of my favorite chapters because it didn’t do anything for the plot. It was a dinner scene with my two main characters trying to one-up each other. There was some great snark and wicked flirtation in it, but it did nothing for the plot nor did it cause their characters to evolve in any way. Their relationship was the same at the end as it had been in the beginning.

One fix for those scenes is to weave in some plot elements, but in this case it was easier to cut it. A few choice lines found homes elsewhere in the novel, but I trimmed 1200 words in one go.

I’ve also cut entire characters or combined them with another character. My protagonist originally had two brothers, until a critique partner asked why she couldn’t just have one. On closer inspection, I realized one brother only existed to accomplish a specific task that could easily be given to brother #2, and brother #1 was wiped from existence. (Sorry, Devin).

Give subplots the same treatment. If they’re not exciting and don’t affect the main plot or character arcs, consider chopping them.

176,000 to 105,000.

That’s my initial word count and my word count after cuts. These tricks do work, though they take a bit of effort. And my manuscript is a thousand times stronger because of it.

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