When I contracted my novella and had to cut 36,000 words off my WIP, I knew it was going to be hard. In fact, I almost bailed on submitting the anthology because I knew that would mean cutting more than half of my story. The pain of deleting my brilliant prose aside, I knew it would be difficult to edit this mystery whose characters and clues were tightly woven together. But I signed that contract, took a deep breath, and said a prayer. I could do this!
The first 10,000 words went easily when I realized there were a lot of unnecessary words I could cut. Then I started messing with my characters’ voices and that hurt. So I moved on to the boring, not so important scenes. Found a few of those. Cut out a couple of fun, but unnecessary characters and started the whole process again.
This went on for months until I was down to the last 8,000 words. I wrote to my agent telling him I was having a hard time swallowing this elephant. I couldn’t see how I could cut the last 8,000 words. He very wisely told me that when the ark is sinking, I should throw the elephant out first. In other words, find big chunks I could cut.
Problem was, I did that. Over and over again. Or did I? Sure, I got rid of the easy stuff, then the scenes I could live without, but now 8,000 words shy of my goal I had to take a closer look at my story and go chapter by chapter salvaging the voice and heart of my story as well as cutting the stuff my book could live without. Notice I didn’t say “What I could live without!”
Was it easy? No, but I got my story down to 21,000. Here are some things I learned along the way, so it won’t be so difficult for you next time your baby’s put on a few too many pounds.
Don’t Show Everything
I know it’s been drilled into us to show don’t tell, but a wise author once said that refers primarily to emotions. I learned that I could “tell” how a person got from point A to point D and skip the details in between. Not only will it make your story move, but it will cut the word count.
Cut the Unnecessary Words
You know that word or phrase your character ALWAYS uses all the time JUST like my character DOES. JUST cut it out ALREADY! JUST do a search for those words and CAPITALIZE them, so when you go BACK through you WIP, they jump out at you. I cut several thousand words this way!
Cut the Double Talk
I admit I’m wordy. Editing this story made me realize I often say the same thing a couple of times in different ways. For example, I might have internal dialogue and external dialogue that say similar things or my character might ask himself a question when it was already expressed in another way in a previous chapter. Not only can it be annoying to the reader, but it slows down the action. Just cut it out, no matter how much you’re in love with all the creative ways you’ve said it.
Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)
In an effort to make my character’s motivations clear, I often tried to explain them through internal dialogue, external dialogue or both. Then I started asking myself “Does the reader need to know this now?” If the answer was no, I cut it and looked for a shorter way to weave in the motivation later. I learned, most times it was unnecessary. I had packed the scene enough that I believe the reader understood without me telling them.
Pick Your Adverbs, Adjectives, and Conjunctions Carefully
Most times, if your writing is strong, you don’t need many adverbs and adjectives. Sometimes you do. I noticed my adjectives would sometimes come in pairs. That’s when I chose one over the other. When it comes to starting a sentence, I seem to favor AND and BUT. I’m not sure why, but now that I know, I can go back and keep the conjunctions that add to the story. And I’m not talking word count.
Get Rid of Prepositions
Trying to cut those last 8,000 had me looking closer at my sentence structure and prepositions. I learned by cutting out some prepositions I could save two words. For example. Instead of “the pieces of the telescope” I could say, “the telescope’s pieces.” With the search and find feature, I could track down these pesky prepositions and send them packing.
Cut the Scene Short
I like to wrap up a scene sometimes with a cliff hanger, often times with internal dialogue. But I found that if I cut the last sentence or two from the scene, it still works. Often times it was better.
Contractions are Your Friend
This might not work for time period pieces, but since mine WIP was a contemporary, anywhere I could use a contraction, I did. Unless your character is “proper” or foreign, most people talk in contractions anyway.
Editing our babies is one of the hardest things we do as authors, but it’s necessary especially if you’re contracted for 20,000 words and have a story that’s 56,000 words. So did I get my word count down? I knew my anthology partners were a little shy of their word count so I did go a bit over…and got a note back I needed to cut another 700. How did I do it? By going back through the list above.
How do you get your word count down and what techniques have you found to make it easier?
Gina Conroy, a.k.a. “the other Gina,” is a new monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. She’s the founder of Writer…Interrupted and is still learning how to balance a career with raising a family. She is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary and her first novella, Buried Deception, in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, releases from Barbour Publishing in January 2012.