5 (More) Ways to Trim Your Book's Word Count, Pt. 2 of 2

5 (More) Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count, Pt. 2 of 2

5 (More) Ways to Trim Your Book's Word Count, Pt. 2 of 2For every author desperate to trim your book’s word count, there’s another author who insists every word is precious. After all, a book wouldn’t have turned out long if it didn’t need to be long.

Sometimes that true. If Charles Dickens had whacked away at his word count (not that he would, since he was paid by the installment), we would never have enjoyed such sprawling delights as Bleak House and Dombey and Son. If modern-day wordsmiths such as fantasy maestro Patrick Rothfuss hadn’t been turned loose upon the page, we would never get to sample the luxurious delights of his 800+ page Kingkiller explorations.

Patrick Rothfuss Name of the Wind Wise Man's Fear Kingkiller Chronicles

In short, there’s a time and a place for hefty word counts.

But there’s also a reason we still quote that pithy proverb:

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Here’s the bottom line: whether the end result of your book be long or short, every word must exist for a consciously sought and approved reason.

As we discussed last week, in Part 1, there are several good reasons for wanting to cull word count. Not least among those reasons is simply making the book better. What author doesn’t desire that?

Last week, I showed you five ways to edit your book’s word count on the macro level by evaluating your:

  • Subplots
  • Characters
  • Scenes
  • Sequels
  • “Explanations”

If you followed my advice, you probably already found large chunks of your book that you could easily streamline. Today, we’re going to take that a step farther, and I’m going to show you how you can up your word-chopping game and revise your way to a better story by focusing on micro editing.

How to Trim Your Book’s Word Count: On the Micro Level

Once you’ve whacked all the big, obvious junk from your story, you can start focusing on the not-so-obvious stuff. Since I had very little macro stuff I could cut in my historical-superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer, micro editing was my only hope for trimming my gargantuan 200,000-word first draft.

It can be overwhelming to look at your mountain of a first draft and know you’re going to have to somehow tunnel through it, using mainly spoons (aka, one word at a time). But it’s surprising how much unnecessary filler exists on the sentence level.

Using only the five methods listed below, I cut 40,000 words from my manuscript. Not too shabby.

1. Glue Words

As I was preparing to start this post, Wordplayer Jeriann Fisher serendipitously messaged me on Facebook, asking if I’d ever done a post on “sticky sentences.” As per ProWritingAid, “sticky sentences” are:

…ones containing a high percentage of glue words. Glue words are the 200 or so most common words in English (excluding the personal pronouns). Glue words are generally used to link nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives.

In short, these are words that simply don’t add much to the story. Here’s the list I used for Wayfarer‘s edit:

  • Asked
  • Begin/Began/Beginning
  • Breath
  • Could
  • Exhale
  • Feel/Felt
  • Glance/Glanced/Glancing
  • Hear
  • Inhale
  • Just
  • Look
  • -ly
  • Moment
  • Replied
  • Said
  • See/Saw/Seeing
  • Seemed
  • -self (his-, her-, your-, my-, it-)
  • Smell
  • Sound
  • Start
  • Taste
  • That
  • Think/Thought/Thinking
  • Touch
  • Turn
  • Very
  • Wonder

Run a universal Find/Replace through your document and replace every instance of these words with the same word all in caps (e.g., “he wondered” becomes “he WONDERed”). This will force you to actively notice and consider each instance of the word, instead of skimming over it obliviously.

Finding Glue Words and Eliminating Sticky Sentences Wayfarer KM Weiland

Note, that not every instance of these words will be superfluous or incorrect. But you’ll find you can trim at least several hundred of these “glue” words from every chapter. That’s a sizable deduction over the entirety of a book. Your story will be the stronger for it.

2. Sticky Filler

Stickiness can infiltrate your book beyond solitary words. You also need to watch out for “sticky filler phrases.” Usually, these phrases are the result of “saying it twice where once will do.”

They include:

Two Descriptors

For Example: Her hair was golden like the sun, like corn silk.

Two Action Beats -or- Action Beat and Dialogue Tag

For Example: He nodded and took a swig from the bottle. “I know what you mean,” he said.

Mechanics of a Motion

For Example: He shrugged his shoulders, then clapped his hands.

She reached her hand for the jar on the top shelf.

He reached to poke her.

She sat down, and he stood up.

 3. Repetitive Dialogue

Talking Around the Subject

Dialogue is one thing you can’t outline–which means even when you know the shape of a conversation before writing it, you still have to find your way through the give-and-take of the actual conversation’s evolution–which means that most character conversations end up a little more rambly than they need to be.

Examine each of your dialogue scenes. Locate the heart of the conversation. What is the one red-hot point the scene is working toward? Now, go back and make sure all the dialogue leading up to that point in funneling right to it.

Eliminate Repetition

In Wayfarer, I had one important dialogue scene that needed to cover a lot of ground. Pretty much everything the characters said was important, but it wasn’t well organized. Instead of resolving one point before moving on, I had let the conversation jump to another important topic, then circle back around to the previous topic.

To combat this, I divided my chapter into sub-files in Scrivener and labeled each file with its section’s “subject” within the conversation. Then I rearranged the pieces, so the flow of the conversation was more cohesive–which kept the characters from having to unnecessarily repeat themselves.

Organizing Dialogue Wayfarer

Chop Dialogue Fillers

Story dialogue is not like real-life dialogue. It doesn’t have to hem and haw. It doesn’t need fillers for the sake of realism. Cut words such as:

  • Ah
  • Er
  • Huh
  • Uh
  • Um
  • Well
  • What?
  • You know

For more, see this post: Want Fantastic Dialogue? Flee These 6 Fearsome Fillers

In trimming dialogue, be careful not to endanger the voice of individual characters. Sometimes the “right” way to say something is not the way a particular character would actually say it. For example, my Cockney sidekick character has the dialogue tic of ending many of her statements as questions. It would have required fewer words to drop the tic, but it wouldn’t have been true to the character.

4. Repetitive Narrative

Just like dialogue, the narrative you write when in the stage of “figuring out” your story can end up walking a drunken line. Watch out for places where you:

1. Repeat the same information in the same scene (as in my “circling back” example above in the “Repetitive Dialogue” section).

2. Repeat the same information multiple times through the book (e.g., an important story is recounted to more than one character).

3. Repeat the characters’ feelings or motivations–without evolving them.

5. Contextual Overkill

Finally, watch out for pieces of informative dialogue and narrative that are rendered unnecessary by the context. Here’s a paragraph I deleted from Wayfarer:

As always, the words were out before he’d properly considered them. Was he ten kinds of fool? All these questions aside, this was his chance. Right here in this room, everything he’d ever wanted from life was coming true in an instant. He would never gain another patron such as Mr. Madoc. The man had been nothing but solicitous and forthright with him from the moment they met.

This is a nice little chunk of seventy words–all of which are unnecessary because readers will already either know or be able to deduce the character’s realizations and motivations, thanks to the overall context of this and preceding scenes.

Figuring out how to trim your book’s word count probably isn’t going to be your favorite writing chore. But armed with these methods for macro and micro word trimming, you can cut tens of thousands of unnecessary words from your story. Even if your book isn’t grossly overweight, all these tricks will help you turn out a tighter, more streamlined, better story. Happy trimming!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s your favorite method for how to trim your book’s word count on the macro level? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kate Flournoy says:

    ‘It can be overwhelming to look at your mountain of a first draft and know you’re going to have to somehow tunnel through it, using mainly spoons …’

    Was the Monsters Inc. reference intentional? 😉

    This is some deep stuff here. I do need to watch out for a lot of those ‘glue words’.
    But quick question: are glue words or repeated action beats or any of that ALWAYS BAD?
    Lemme explain— with my writing, it’s like me watching a movie and writing down what I see on paper. I have to find the right combination of words to describe as accurately as possible what I saw. Sometimes, the abbreviated sentence (with the sticky words cut out) doesn’t describe the motion as well as the non-abbreviated sentence does. ???? Does this mean I should discard one for the other anyway? Is either choice necessarily better or worse than the other? I totally get writing a good tight, concise, hard-hitting story— I want that. Very much. But considering my problem, I think I may be tone-deaf when it comes to figuring out whether concise or accurate is better. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two thoughts come to mind.

      First, none of these words or phrases are *always* bad. You’ll be hard-pressed to write a book without *ever* using them. So don’t feel you have to find and stomp every single one of them.

      Second, with that understood, something else to keep in mind when it comes to “cinematic writing” is that this can sometimes be counterproductive (as I talk about in this post: Show What Your Character Is Feeling and Thinking–and Do It Like a Writer, Not a Director). I can’t, of course, say this is so in your case. But it’s something to keep in mind.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        Hm… that’s something I hadn’t thought about before. Wow… something to chew on, definitely. So let me see if I got this straight— instead of saying ‘she raised the apple to her mouth and sank her teeth into it hard, tearing off a bite and chewing it thoughtfully’ you could just say ‘she took a bite of her apple’, and leave the MANNER of the action to the reader’s imagination based on what mood the character was already in?
        And instead of saying ‘he wilted forward over his desk with a groan, his hair flopping over his face, his eyes squeezed tightly shut’ you could just say ‘he wilted over his desk with a groan’ and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps? Is that how it works?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Exactly. There will be exceptions, of course, where the exact manner of a common action becomes important. It’s also true that you don’t want to let all of your prose sink into generic references. But over-explaining can end up stunting the reader’s imagination and prevent him from investing as strongly in the story.

          • Kate Flournoy says:

            Perfect. Thanks so much! 😀

          • I ‘get’ what you are suggesting, however, as one who struggles to show instead of tell, the first sentence, ‘he wilted forward over his desk with a groan, his hair flopping over his face, his eyes squeezed tightly shut,’ seems much more like showing, where as ‘he wilted over his desk with a groan,’ feels like telling to me. My word count is bloated from trying so hard to show since it doesn’t come naturally.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Remember, strong verbs and nouns are, in themselves, “showing.” “Wilted” evokes an entire image in the reader’s brain, all by itself.

        • One thought – there are some in-between options in your biting the apple example you gave.

          “Took a bite” isn’t descriptive of how you initially wrote the sentence, it’s a bit passive compared to your original. You could try different options like: “she ripped into the apple” or “she chomped on the apple” etc. The verb you choose should/could express the emotion and tone of what’s going on with the character.

          Another thought – writing has the ability to expand or contract time. One way this comes out is in the amount of detail you provide. It’s easy, when you really can see the image in your head, to add in all the details. But then you need to step back and ask, how long would it actually take a person to bite into an apple? The description of biting into the apple you have takes longer than the actual act of doing it. That’s neither good or bad, it really depends on the relative importance of what’s going on. In this sense, if there’s no real significance to the act of taking a bit of the apple, then make it much shorter. If it is important, they stay with what you have or focus it a bit more to indicate why it’s important (maybe the act of biting it triggered her deep thoughts for instance).

          As an aside, I come from a film background, so I understand what you’re facing. When we use very detailed images, those typically indicate a close up or even an extreme close up and those things have added weight in a scene. A suggestion you may to want to think about – when you visualize your story, play with how close or far away from the action you are when seeing it.

  2. Wowsers. I can’t believe you cut out 40,000 words. Whew. My NaNo is only 50k right now. I need to inflate some life into that sucker. But yours sounds pretty critical to make it as streamlined and concise as possible. Unless you’re aiming for a behemoth. I’m sure we’d all still read it. You’ve already got an established fan base. I know I would as one of your top, ahem…padawans. I just started reading A Song of Ice and Fire with a whopping 819 pages. If it wasn’t a popular book or author there’s no way I’d even consider it. But just a few pages in I know this guy is one of a kind. But anyways back to the matter at hand. Your WIP sounds like a challenge. Curious to see what you come up with. 2018? Yikes. I suppose you can’t microwave it right?

    Over and out.

    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fantasy, in general, tends to produce more acceptably long books than other genres. The worldbuilding alone necessitates it. But I don’t think authors ever go wrong by analyzing ways to streamline their writing.

  3. 1, this is really exciting because these are the skills I’m still working on (and only felt confident in recently). It’s satisfying to know other people use the same methods.
    2, I’ve used pro-writing aid. Now the sticky sentences make sense!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you for reaching a place of confidence! That’s a huge milestone as a writer.

  4. Is there anyway you could send this post six years back in time? My first book was full of repetitive narrative and it suffered for it. If I had read this then, it would have been much better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s been said this ability of writers to look back and clearly see their previous works’ flaws is, in fact, a sign of their growing good taste. 🙂 With any luck, you’ll feel the same about your current WIP in another six years!

  5. I have a question with regard to the “6 Fearsome Fillers” post you linked (which was very helpful, by the way.) In my novel, most of my characters frequently address each other while speaking, but they usually use relationships instead of names- “My mother,” “My son,” “My husband,” etc. I feel like this speech mannerism they share enhances the time and place of the setting and that the characters have a close (yet dysfunctional) family. However, I am concerned that editors and reviewers will not like it. Should I remove it entirely, or only most of it, or just cut back on it by removing a few instances? I did start the novel during NaNo, so most likely when I start editing I will have to remove a lot of filler, of the kinds referenced in both parts of this post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re using it to characterize your characters–which is always a good thing–but I would definitely be wary of overdoing it. Especially with an obvious quirk like this, a little usually goes a long way. It won’t take much for the readers to get the idea. You can use it throughout the story, but you’ll probably only *need* it sporadically.

  6. Thank you for this incredibly timely advice. Fake Buddha quote or not, “when the student is ready the teacher will appear.” Keep up the great work.

  7. I trimmed about %10 of my word count just by deleting a series of ‘dead’ words, such as ‘very, just, that,” etc. I made a list and highlighted them with find/replace although I really like your idea of putting them in all caps. Sometimes my find/replace function decides that it doesn’t want to highlight things, which irritates me. One minute it works, then the next time I type in a word I want to find/replace, it doesn’t want to work. Great tips, and I have used most of them just be experimentation!! I think the hardest thing to cut is dialogue. The first time you write a ‘perfect’ dialogue scene you’re like…’oh man that was beautiful!” even if it was repetitive or unnecessary. It took me a long time to be comfortable with going in and cutting out dialogue 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like the highlight idea a lot, since it allows you to highlight different aspects/reasons for examining a word. But I confess I’ve never gotten around to figuring out how to do that. :p The old CAPS trick has always served me well.

  8. darkocean says:

    If I’m in a hurry, and don’t have much time I’ll search/find for my favorite words that I ever use: Wriggled, flowed, but, this caused, and, then. I’ve trained my self to avoid most ly words, filler words, but other ones like to snerk into new chapters. My main problem is typos and lack of setting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My best trick every for typos is to get my Kindle to read my manuscript aloud to me, while I read along. It get 98% of the typos, I’ll bet.

      • darkocean says:

        I don’t own one of those yet. I do have the software balabolka on my desktop.

        !

        Hey thanks. This made me think to look for it in the Google play store.

        http://m.en.softonic.com/app/balabolka

        I don’t use it often, it’s very tiring having the volume cranked to the max to be able to hear it.

        Off toppic here, but I’ve discovered that a storys rhythm can improve if you read lots if poems and limericks.

        My son is in a phrase were he wants me to read, A Light In The Attic every night. So, thats how that happened. Well and trying not to use the same words too many times.

        There, no typos I hope. I went slow.

  9. darkocean says:

    Especially if I’m on my phone. Do you know of an android apo that makes the keys large?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, no. I’m not an Android user, so I’m afraid I’m no help there.

      • darkocean says:

        Rats, oh well, just have to slow down. I like a desk top keyboard the best.

        I’m so glad for yours and other peoples’ lists of words that csn be taken out to trim a story down. I just used a writing tool that gives an approximate page count for the number of words in a book, and I’ve got 515 pages. Oh crud. :p

  10. Wondering if you have any specific tips about cutting narrative. (I’m using 1st person and don’t want to drown my readers in his narrative.) How do I figure out how much narrative is necessary?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first question to ask yourself is always: What is this adding to the story? If it’s repeat info or unnecessary info or doesn’t move the plot in some way, then you can probably cut it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the writing comes the editing. K.M. Weiland share 5 (more) ways to trim your book’s word count, and Victoria Strauss shows us how freelance editors get paid, so we can avoid getting scammed. To […]

  2. […] Weiland’s back with five more ways to trim your novel’s word count. Helping writers become authors. Later in the week, she helps us choose the right […]

  3. […] some tips about how to shed word-weight? Check out these two post by K.M. Weiland 5 (More) Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count, Pt. 2 of 2 & (Part […]

  4. […] 5 (More) Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count, Pt. 2 of 2 […]

  5. […] 5 More Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count – Another helpful article by K.M. Weiland. This set of tips for tightening up your word count gets into the micro level and includes some Scrivener tips for people who use the writing software (I do!). One of the things I’m most looking forward to is taking the hatchet to my first draft which, at my current pace, is going to exceed 500 pages. Too long for a first effort! […]

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