How to Trim Your Book's Word Count

5 Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count, Pt. 1 of 2

How to Trim Your Book's Word Count Part 1 of 2This is not a post for the writers who have trouble writing books that aren’t long enough. This is not a post for writers who say they’re going to write a short story and actually end up writing a short story. Nope, this is a post for writers who set out to write a nice little 100,000-word novel–and find themselves at the finish line with a 200,000-word behemoth on their hands.

Sound painfully familiar? Then this post is for you.

(And for those of you with the opposite problem of too-short word counts, this is post for you.)

An Adventure in Lengthy Word Count

That writer I was describing up there in the opening paragraph–the one who started out with a goal of writing a 100k-word novel and ending up with a 200k-word manuscript? Yep, totally me.

My historical-superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer ended up being, by far, the longest first draft I’ve ever written. One hundred thousand words is my standard goal, although my medieval epic Behold the Dawn is the only book to ever end up right on the number’s nose. It’s a good length for most genres, a manageable time commitment for editing, and a reasonable size-for-the-price when it comes time to print paperbacks.

When I hit 100k at Wayfarer‘s Midpoint, I started to panic. What in tarnation was happening here? The book had the same number of scenes as in my reasonably-sized historical/dieselpunk adventure Storming, and yet it was huge. (That’s what I get for writing a Dickens-inspired fantasy.)

Ideally, stories should dictate their own length. Some stories need to be long. Others will say what they need to say in far fewer than 100k words. But that just because a story’s first draft turns out long doesn’t mean it’s meant to be that long.

My goal in my first revision of Wayfarer was to see what I could do to whack that unruly word count into shape, without, of course, taking anything away from the story. These are the methods I used, and the methods you can use to trim your book’s word count and create a story that’s all the tighter and more powerful for losing a few pounds.

Set Your Word Count Goals

Never dive into an edit, flailing blindly. Know your goals and break them down into still smaller goals you can actually get your head around. Here’s how.

1. Divide Word Count by Quarters

Start by considering your story’s structure. Ideally, you want your First Act, First Half of the Second Act, Second Half of the Second Act, and Third Act to each be a quarter of the book. The timing doesn’t have to work out perfectly, but examining the respective word counts of each act can help you identify which section is most bloated.

For me, it was the Second Act that got decidedly out of hand, as you can see from this Scrivener screen clipping:

Original Word Count Breakdown Wayfarer

(And, by the way, I know you’re going to ask, so I’m just going to tell you: there is no way to get the word count to automatically show up in Scrivener’s Binder. You have to type it into the file name by hand. You can, however, add word count as a meta-data entry in the Outline view.)

2. Estimate Average Chapter Goals

Once you know how many words you need to trim from each quarter in order to reach your overall goal, break that down chapter by chapter. For example, according to my calculations, I knew I would need to trim more from each chapter in the Second Act than either the First or the Third:

Chapter Word Count Goals for Wayfarer's First Draft

3. Estimate Average Word Removal Goal per Sentence

This is a little trickier, but you can further break down the goal by estimating how many sentences are in each chapter. Run a Find/Replace for periods in your manuscript. Give or take, you can figure this is how many sentences you have in your story. Divide those sentences by the number of chapters. Then divide that number into your word-count goal for each chapter.

To be honest, I think I fudged this one a bit, but I came up with the goal of trying to cut at least four words from each sentence:

Trim Your Book's Word Count per Sentence Wayfarer

Obviously, the four-words-per-sentence goal needs to be entirely flexible. Not every sentence will have four words! But it’s a good number to have in your head  as you examine the worth of each word choice (more on that next week, when we talk micro-editing ).

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

In any type of edit, but especially a word-trimming one, you always want to start with the big picture. There’s no point in obsessing about word choice if your story has whole scenes and whole subplots you can axe.

Now, I will say that, for better or worse, I made zero macro word cuts on Wayfarer. The advantage of entering a first draft with a solid outline and structure is that you don’t have many major changes to make when editing. The disadvantage, of course, is that when it comes to word count, this means there isn’t much that can logically be sacrificed without harming the story.

However, since I got to enjoy this very fun (joking, joking!) experience way back when editing my portal fantasy Dreamlander, today I’ll be sharing these five tried-and-true methods for eliminating whole chunks of your story.

1. Examine Your Subplots

In every phase of the macro edit, you’re looking for anything extraneous you can pull from the story without changing the main plot. A good subplot will be so integrally woven within the conflict and theme of the main plot that it will be inextricable. But it’s easy to write not-so-good subplots that really aren’t adding as much as you think to the story.

Get ruthless with yourself and examine each of your subplots. If you killed any of these darlings, would it endanger the integrity and value of your main story? Be honest–because if you can start cutting subplots, you’ll see a major drop in your overall word count.

2. Examine Characters

Extraneous characters and extraneous subplots go hand in hand. Find one and you’ll probably find the other. Cutting unnecessary characters–or combining them with other characters–will help you eliminate whole reams of unnecessary description, narrative, and dialogue.

3. Examine Scenes

Every scene in your story should matter. If you can pull a scene without its affecting the causal logic or emotional flow of the story, then, by all means, pull it.

Take the time to deliberately look at each scene in your story. Do they each follow proper scene structure (which, by itself, should guarantee integrality)? Do they each contribute something that advances the plot? If you pulled any one of them, would the story still work?

Rate each scene’s importance:

0 for “Useless”

1 for “Just There”

2 for “Vital”

Chop the zeros, combine the ones, and keep the twos.

4. Examine Sequels

Same goes for your sequel scenes–the reaction half of the scene structure. These are every bit as important to the logical cause and effect of your story, but they can often be culprits of unnecessary bloating. Look for sequel scenes in which your characters just sit around talking, reflecting, or thinking. Some of these may be necessary, but often, you can take advantage of their mediocrity to slice off some nice word chunks.

5. Look for “Explanation” Scenes

In the same vein, hunt down “explanation” scenes, in which characters are doing nothing more than explaining things to one another. Fantasy novels are often guilty of this. Do not (let me say that again: do not!) spare your word-cutting knife from any scene in which your characters decide to “pass the time” by info-dumping about the setting, the conflict, or themselves.

These five methods for macro editing your story will not only help you whip your word count into shape, they will also help you craft a story that is stronger on every level. Be sure to stop back again next Monday for Part 2 and learn how to knock even more words (40,000, in Wayfarer‘s case) by trimming your book’s word count on the micro level.

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:

    Thank you for this article, Mrs. Weiland— thank you so much! I’m in the middle of finishing off a 467, 337 word monster, and this gives me quite a good idea of what to look for in cutting. I especially need to watch out for the ‘explanation scenes’— thanks for pointing that out. 🙂
    I’m new to this website, by the way, but already your articles have helped me get some of my ideas straightened out. So… thanks! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whoa! And I thought Wayfarer was a beast. :p Glad you’re enjoying the site! Be sure to stop again next Monday for part two, about chopping words on the sentence level.

    • Kate – you have made me feel better about my 140k plus novel. I thought it was a behemoth. Have you considered making yours a trilogy? Mine will be, however, the first book needs to get closer to 100k words.

  2. Wow. 200k. That’s quite a whopper. Thanks for breaking down and sharing your editing process. I’m sure I’ll refer to this in the future.

    1. When is Wayfarer due, 2017?
    2. When does your course start?

    See ya.
    Keep your game face on.

  3. Great article, of course there needs to be ways to add words to an overly short work. I generally find I’m too short and need to add words. This is what I do:

    Turn a key bit of narrative summary into a scene.

    Replace speech tags with beats to keep the action moving through a dialogue.

    Find that bit of flowery description which stops the story dead, and rewrite it as a character interacting with the setting.

    Go back and make sure you’ve created the hints to make that brilliant plot twist, brilliant instead of irritating.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good tips! Usually, the problem with a too-short story is that it’s telling more than it’s showing. Showing will usually require three or more times as many words as telling.

  4. As a semi-pantser – that is, I write knowing the beginning and the end of my novel, and because I put myself inside the protagonist and let him/her lead me through the story, it’s hard for me to attack the editing problem from the outside in.
    What I do instead is finish the first draft, and then go back to the beginning. There I make an outline of each chapter from beginning to end. From there I can evaluate the shape of the work.
    In “The English General” I ended up with 145,000 words. I knew it was too long, so just started on page 1 and deleted any unnecessary words and side-issues. It took me about a week. That was it.
    It’s not a perfect novel, but what is?
    The final word count is 115,000 words.
    I deleted 30,000 unnecessary words.
    How easy is that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not easy at all. Usually, it’s like pulling teeth! :p On particularly complicated revisions, I will essentially create a small “outline” of what needs to change, chapter by chapter.

  5. Oh boy.

    For the first book in my trilogy, I assumed that of course 120K should be sufficient. But when I reached 90K, I realized there was no way I was going to finish that story with 30K more words to go. Nope, I’d set too much in motion.

    I was right, I blew past 120 and went all the way to 171. Like you said, the “explanation” scenes — or Council of Elrond scenes as I call them — were the biggest culprits. I whacked and pruned them. For me, I didn’t have any minor characters I could whack. Several of them were “pantsed” into existence exactly when they were needed. Just-in-time manufacturing … however, I was able to streamline their scenes and delete a few entirely.

    That got me down to about 150K. But then I realized I needed to add a few scenes … so I’m at ~161k now. The second book clocked in at that point, and I’m confident it will be shorter when I start editing.

    I first felt guilty about going past my preferred count, until I saw a visual representation of word count in a website’s post about Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Weekes. One of the two had a baby sitting next to his manuscript page stack, with the baby as a unit of measurement: the stack was *this* tall 🙂 Since I only have three point-of-view characters, with only occasional scenes from the POV of minor characters I figure my count is not too bad. I always write long, then trim.

    For a back burner sci-fi project I’m trying to shoot for 90 to 100. We’ll see if it happens … I’ll give your word-count-by-act idea a try. This is part of why I’m interested in your outlining posts; I want more control over my work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, you raise another of the reasons I was eager to trim to Wayfarer‘s initial word count: words are *always* added during future drafts.

      • Ugh, that happened to me as well. I intended to trim words and ended up with more on the third draft. Just about ready for macro-edits.

  6. This is advice I will be needing… First drafting at the moment, but I’m over 165,000 at just past the half way mark. Even for fantasy, that’s a bit much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s not out of sight for fantasy, but it’s better to aim shorter if you’re unpublished. Editors and agents seem more likely to look at shorter first-time books.

  7. Excellent post! I’ve just entered year 10 of this project and sure wish I’d known about Outline and Structure at the beginning.

    Draft 2011, lovingly nicknamed ‘Full Meal Deal’ – “pants” (pantsered?) out at 218,508 words… I’m now down to 164,642 – thanks to your helpful books and blog posts.

    Now that I have the plot/structure/outline nailed down, I’m aware one of the POV characters (the therapist) needs his emotional flavour developed. More show, less tell… which means more words… sigh… And more flashbacks/hints at his backstory.

    The other POV (the client) has lots of diary entries, so I’m hoping much of that can be deleted. Stuff I had to write to get to know her, but maybe the reader doesn’t need…

    By doing a ruthless scene/sequel analysis, I hope to whittle away more words, and avoid doing that micro sentence evaluation – that sounds brutal!! Looking forward to seeing how you do it, and stay sane 😉 Lots of chocolate rewards along the way?

    Great idea putting word count in the file name!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re doing all the right things and asking yourself all the right questions!

  8. These are great tips! I had a similar crisis with my YA fantasy (clocked in at 103,000, needed to be 80,000), and these are basically the methods I used. I was amazed how much I could cut by just really, really looking at my sentences. Though there were some scenes that needed to be trimmed or rewritten, the vast majority of the cuts came from just choosing my words more carefully.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Same here–which I’m going to talk about in the next post. I cut 40k words, totally on the sentence level.

  9. Oh boy, your article is a gem! Bookmarked and ready for when my first draft balloons to a beast 🙂

  10. I loved this post. It made me feel better about my 120K Historical fiction draft that I feel needs to be whittled down a bit. I initially thought 120K was just too long. Now I won’t be obsessed with the ending word count but will focus on eliminating unnecessary words and subplots.
    Receiving this post was timely.

    Thank you for sharing your methodology. It’s very helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, 120k sounds like a skinny Minnie to me right now! :p If you can just focus on creating a story that’s the *right* length, the rest falls into place.

  11. Another good article. I hacked a character and re-worked some sneaky info-dump to get mine down from nearly 150K to 128K. I read somewhere (Writer’s Digest, I think) that the high end of the sweet-spot range for a fantasy is 120K, but I’m not going to sweat that last 8K. It’s sitting with an editor now anyway, so we’ll see what happens!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s the high end unless you’re Sanderson or Rothfuss. But good job. 20k is a significant number.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland shares five ways to trim your novel’s word count (part 1). Helping writers become authors. Later in the week, she helps us learn how to write deep […]

  2. […] 5 Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count, Pt. 1 of 2 […]

  3. […] Want more ways on how to cut down your novel? Author Janice Hardy has some great tips on how to shear that manuscript while author K.M. Weiland lists five ways to trim that word fat.  […]

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