Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-50%

…and tighten up your story without losing any of the good stuff!

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Have you been told your story looks promising or even intriguing, but your novel is way too long?  Today’s readers have shorter attention spans, and publishers don’t want to accept long novels from new writers, as they are so much more expensive to produce.

The current preferred length for thrillers, mysteries and romance is around 70,000–90,000 words. Anything over100K is definitely considered too long in most genres these days. Well-written, finely crafted fantasies and historical sagas can run longer, but newbie writers need to earn their stripes first before attempting to sell a really long novel. Basically, every word needs to count. Every image and decision and action and reaction needs to drive the story forward. There’s no place for rambling or waxing eloquent or self-indulgent preening in today’s popular fiction! Thrillers and other suspense novels especially need to be fast-paced page-turners.

Some strategies for cutting the word count. It’s best to proceed roughly in this order, using any of the tips that apply to your novel:

First, consider:

~ If you have a meandering writing style, tighten it up. Condense long descriptions and backstory; take out repetitions of all kinds (imagery, plot points, ideas, descriptions, phrases, words); delete or condense scenes that drag, have insufficient tension, or just don’t drive the story forward; and in general, make your scenes, paragraphs and sentences leaner. See Chapters 9, 10, 11, 14 & 15 of my book, Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

In general, it’s best to start with big changes/cuts to plot, characters, and structure:

~ If your writing is quite tight but you have an intricate, involved plot, can you divide your really long novel into two or three in a series? But bear in mind that each book in the series needs its own plot arc and character arc – rising tension and some resolution, and a change/growth in the protagonist.

~ If the story doesn’t lend itself to being broken up, try making your plot less detailed. Cut or combine some of your less exciting plot points. Cut down on some of the “and then, and then, and then…”

~ Consider deleting one or two (or three) subplots, depending on how many you have.

~ Cut back on your cast of thousands. Too many characters can be confusing and annoying to the readers. Combine two or three characters into one. And don’t get into involved descriptions of minor, walk-on characters.

~ Consider deleting or condensing chapter one. Maybe even chapter two, too. Take out the warm-up, where you’re revving your engine, and start your story later.

~ Take out all or almost all backstory (character history) in the first few chapters and marble in just the essentials as you go along, on an “as-needed” basis only. This also helps add intrigue.

~ Delete most or all of any chapters that don’t have enough tension and change, that don’t drive the story forward. Add any essential bits to other chapters. (Save deleted stuff on another file.) Or condense two chapters and combine them into one.

~ Delete or condense scenes that don’t have enough tension or change, or add much to the plot or characterization. Condense parts where scenes drag, eliminating the boring bits. (Take out the parts that readers skip over.) See my article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change" or Chapter 4 of my book, Writing a Killer Thriller.

~ Take out any weak links, remnants from earlier versions, stuff that just doesn’t fit there anymore (if it ever did).

Then evaluate your writing style, and the internal structure of your chapters and scenes:

~ Cut back on rambling or overly detailed descriptions of settings. With today’s access to TV, movies, the internet and travel, we no longer need the kind of detail readers of 100 years ago needed to understand the setting, so just paint with broad brush strokes, and leave out all the little details. Also, don’t describe the setting in neutral language. Filter any descriptions of surroundings through the eyes, ears, and attitude of your point of view character. 

~ Same with characters – no need to go into great detail. Give the most obvious and interesting details, and let the readers fill in the rest to their heart’s content. See my article “Character Descriptions – Detailed or Sketchy?”

~ Don’t repeat info. Don't have a character relating the details to another character of something that happened that the readers witnessed first-hand and already know about. Skip over it with a phrase like “She told him how she’d gotten injured.” 

~ Start scenes and chapters later and end them sooner. Cut out the warm-up and cool-down.

~ Skip over transitional times when not much happens. Replace with one or two sentences, or just a phrase, like “Three days later,”.

~ Eliminate or severely condense any “explanations” on subjects. Take out or condense any info dumps, self-indulgent rambling on pet topics, “teaching” sections, or rants. Keep these to the bare minimum, and give the info from a character’s point of view, with attitude, or through a lively conversation or heated argument. See Chapter 8 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

~ Eliminate repetitions and redundancies. Just say it once – no need to say it again in a different way. You may think that will help emphasize your point, but it actually has the opposite effect. For more on this, see Chapter 9 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

Finally, tighten your writing to create leaner paragraphs and sentences:

~ Try to delete one paragraph per page (or two); one sentence (or more) in each paragraph; and at least one word, preferably more, in each sentence. Cut out the deadwood!

~ Do a search for all those words that are just taking up space or weakening your prose, and delete most of them, like there is, there was, it is, it was, that, now, then, suddenly, immediately, and qualifiers like very, quite, kind of, sort of, somewhat, extremely, etc. Also, take out any other extra words that are cluttering up your sentences like “located”: Not: “The cafe was located on Main Street,” but: “The cafe was on Main Street.” And delete redundant add-ons like “in color,” “in size,” “in time,” and “in number.” Not, “The car was red in color” but “The car was red.” For more tips on streamlining your writing, see Chs. 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles.

~ For better flow, condense prepositional phrases: Change “the captain of the team” to “the team captain”; change “in the vicinity of” to “near,” etc. For more, see Chs. 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles.

For more tips on streamlining your writing and cutting out the deadwood, see Chapters 14 & 15 of Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

Writers – Do you have any other ideas for reducing your word count?

Also, see my articles, “How to Save a Bundle on Editing Costs” and “Honing Your Craft.”

 Jodie Renner, a freelance editor specializing in popular fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power (soon to be re-titled Fire up Your Fiction), which won a Silver Medal in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013, and Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards, 2013. Upcoming title: Immerse the Readers in Your Story World. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, her blog, Resources for Writers, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Jodie also blogs alternate Mondays on The Kill Zone blog. Subscribe to Jodie’s newsletter here.


  1. I think the 70-90,000 count - also for SF&F - has been around for a few decades, iirc (epic fantasy being the exception, as you note). "Basically, every word needs to count." When I revise, I approach my prose as I do my poetry. Perhaps that tightness can be transitioned into "writing advice."

    " general, make your scenes, paragraphs and sentences leaner." There probably should be a caveat to that: Don't do a Hemingway. He's not the opposite of Dickens. (I'm a bit classical, I see.:)

    I do like your advice that "it’s best to start with big changes/cuts to plot, characters, and structure." Too often writers fix sentences, not ideas. I've seen this in student writing. The micro-changes follow more easily from the macro. Stephen King's advice about cutting 10% presupposes that the plot and characters are already solid. From what I've read, you're one of the few to emphasize a holistic or structural approach first.

    "each book in the series needs its own plot arc and character arc" - this approach works well in serials and comics. Experienced writers can see this and manage it. Beginners, I suspect, will need help getting uncomplicated - one reason you're here! :)

    "Cut back on your cast of thousands." Writers and advisor are just now waking up to this.

    "Consider deleting or condensing chapter one" and "Take out all or almost all backstory (character history) in the first few chapters" were hard lessons for me to learn. Still learning them.

    "Delete most or all of any chapters or scenes that don’t have enough tension and change" - Unless a writer steps back from the work, it can be hard to determine this. After all, sometimes the tension is buried, or that in chapter 15 is only there because of some apparently "non-tension" parts of chapter 9. The key here may be "change" - (tension or change, not and?).

    This section: "Then evaluate your writing style, and the internal structure of your chapters and scenes: " is all good stuff. Many of us had to learn it the hard way. It's important to see it again, though, because it's easy to forget these points, even in a 3rd or 4th revision. The "rambling" of 100 years ago still had a tight structure; it didn't ramble aimlessly.

    I also want to emphasize again that what you're stressing here is top-down, design and structure first. That's important, because word count as killing adverbs and grammar revision won't strengthen the story on their own.

    "Do a search for all those words that are just taking up space or weakening your prose" - I wonder if someone did this first, could he or she find the macro or plot level problems you point out earlier? It's happened to me that way on occasion.

    I really like this post. Imperative for beginners, important for experienced writers. Everyone needs to review the basics and to be reminded of fundamentals. Thanks!

    (Now can you tell me how to get my picture in here? :)

  2. Thanks for another one of your detailed, thoughtful, intelligent comments, David! We appreciate you taking the time to share your excellent opinions and obvious expertise!

    (To get your photo on here, try registering with WordPress or Google. Maybe someone else can offer more specific instructions - I'm not much of a techie!)

    1. This is a fun place and I learn a lot. So thank you!

  3. Well done, Jodie. Once again, you provide valuable information for writers at all levels.

  4. Excellent advice, Jodie. As usual.

  5. I cut the stuff that sounds "writerly" because it's not my voice. However, most of my books come in around 100K--I tried to keep the last one closer to 90, but when I sent it to my editor, she was asking me for more. Thank goodness for Indie publishing, where it doesn't cost any more to publish a 70K e-book than a 105K one. Print is more difficult. Create Space's cut is based on number of pages. To keep costs down for my readers who prefer print, I dropped the font a point. It's still larger than MMPB font, so I don't think it'll cause squinting.

    Terry's Place

    1. Terry, great idea on the font. I hadn't thought of that...

    2. Terry, you don't ramble or waste words, anyway, and your books have enough intrigue to keep readers turning the pages! No boring bits there to take out! :-)

    3. Thanks, Jodie -- you flatter me (my crit partners point out the boring bits long before the book gets in front of an editor!)

  6. Timely advice. I just finished a first draft and I'm looking to cut 2k-3k words from it. It's aim at the 8-12 age group, so I definitely don't need anything that isn't absolutely essential.

    1. Glad to be of help, Mary! And you're so right about books for that age group. Every word needs to grab them and keep them reading! Looking forward to reading your pre-teen book when it comes out!

  7. Great article. This should help me out. I'm tossing around the idea of getting a pro editor real soon.

  8. Good advice. The bit about thinning the cast of characters by consolidating a few bit players into a single character is something I could benefit from.

  9. Jodie -
    Another outstanding post and one THAT I will heed (er, I mean,one I will heed)!
    Thanks much - I love cutting word count.

  10. Thanks for your kind comments, Kristen, Sloke, and Anon! - Nice to get an anonymous comment that's not spam! :) And hear from someone who enjoys slashing their novel! That's gotta be rare! LOL


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