Sometimes you’ve written a great story—you’ve just written too much of it. Last time, I went over word counts, and a few tips for making short books longer. In this post I’m going to talk a bit about how to make long books shorter, and how you know what can be cut.
If you need to remove:
A handful of words:
Look for word padding. Finding unnecessarily long constructions and replacing them with shorter ones allows you to cut down on words without making any changes to plot and character. This also tends to make the writing faster paced and a bit livelier. For example: And so she just went along on her way to the store. Becomes She went to the store.
Keep your eyes out for words like “just,” “actually,” “very,” “really,” “basically,” “essentially,” “in order to,” and extra instances of “that.”
Remove filtering phrases. A filtering phrase is a phrase that unnecessarily filters the action through a character’s perspective, which creates distance between the readers and what’s going on in the story. Things like “She saw,” “He heard,” and “They felt,” are all filtering phrases. So an example would be: Alice saw the monster running towards her becomes The monster ran towards Alice. Filtering phrases are unnecessary because either 1. Alice is the POV character, and we know that if something is being described to us she must have noticed it or 2. Alice is not the POV character so we have no idea what she saw/felt/heard and the statement may constitute a POV error.
A few lines here and there:
Focus on your descriptions. A common source of extra wordiness is repeated descriptions. This comes in three forms. One is where the author will write two or three descriptions of the same thing in a row, where any one would be adequate. Read through your descriptions carefully and make sure that each part of the description adds something new.
The second form is when the writer tells something, and then immediately shows the same, thereby establishing it twice. It can also happen in the opposite order: something is shown, and then the writer describes exactly what the reader has just seen. Since the telling serves only to reinforce something that you have clearly demonstrated, cut it and have faith that readers will know how to interpret your writing. They will.
The third form is when an object is given a strong description the first time it appears, and either that description is repeated each time it appears, or it is constantly reintroduced with new descriptions that don’t add to the original. After something is introduced, it is generally safe to scale back on descriptions, since the reader already has a basic concept of what the person/place/thing looks like.
Bonus points: Cut description of mundane things. If the reader knows what it looks like, don’t describe it. Mundane objects get at most one modifying phrase—unless there’s something spectacular about the office stapler, a single adjective (if that) will suffice.*
*I would have said this was obvious, until I went back to my old work and found a full paragraph describing a non-plot-relevant file cabinet. We’ve all done it.
A couple of paragraphs:
Conserve your details. If a detail isn’t important, doesn’t give the reader a better image of the scene, and doesn’t come back later, you can probably remove that detail and the associated description/discussion.
Slash small-talk. It’s easy to write dialogue in which nothing happens, winding up to the real conversation. There’s lots of small talk in real life. In fiction, not only do you not need it, but you probably can’t afford it. Small talk accomplishes little, stalls the story, and takes up space where important things could be said.
Cut internal monologues. Wherever the point of view character is alone with their thoughts, action isn’t happening. It’s rare for internal monologues to provide genuine insight into the story, and more often than not they end up rehashing things that the reader could put together on their own. They also tend to be tangential to the action, so they can be removed easily without changing the flow of the story.
Crunch transitions. Summary narration is when you replace a long period of time with a couple of sentences, and it’s great for cutting transitions. Assuming that nothing important happens along the way, summary narration allows you to say, “It was another week before they arrived in Dover. When they got there…” or “A couple of weeks passed, and then…” without filling in what happened in the meantime. It’s a useful tool for removing uneventful travel and waiting.
Remove scenes where nothing happen. Sometimes entire scenes end up as fluff. While fluff may be fun to read or write, and while it may be useful when first hitting your stride, it’s also easy to cut because it doesn’t alter the course of the story. Identify the scenes that don’t introduce much new information, are light on character development, or don’t have much in the way of plot advancement—essentially, scenes with low information content, make a note of what information is lost, and then cut.
Do away with unnecessary difficulty. Apply conservation of detail on a large scale. The amount of time it takes to accomplish an objective should be proportional to the objective’s importance. If it takes half the book for the characters to do prep work (in a book where this isn’t the main focus) or to complete a side quest, consider condensing these things or making them a little easier.
Find out where the story begins. Extra scenes before the story kicks off are good for warming up, but once the story is written, they can usually be cut. Find your inciting incident. There’s a good chance that most of what comes before it can go. Especially if you have a wake-up opener.
Major structural revisions
Any time that you remove characters, subplots, or background on the world, your story is going to get shorter. The amount of effort and revision it takes to do this is variable. If a character or subplot can be removed without touching the main plot line, there are even odds that it didn’t need to be there to begin with.
More drastic changes, like cutting out a POV character, will also result in significant cuts, assuming that you’re prepared to make that change and you believe that it will strengthen your story. Likewise, speeding up the pace of the story and making things happen more quickly will cut words, although it may mean serious revisions.
Your book may be more than one novel. If you’ve cut all the word-padding, tightened your descriptions, and have next to no fluff, but your book is still 200k words, you may be looking at a series. Consider breaking the book into two or three. It may take a bit of restructuring, but it will give your story the space that it needs to unfold rather than crunching it into a shorter format.
This article is about cutting. It’s usually a good idea to have a file for content that you’ve cut—particularly good descriptions, witty banter, deleted scenes. There’s always a chance that you can recycle them elsewhere, or you may decide later that you want them back. It also stands that sometimes, even if it doesn’t fit in the book, something is genuinely well written and it would be a shame to lose it.