Many authors face a common issue when publishers express interest in their books, and that issue is word count. “It’s too long.” That’s a terrifying thing to hear when you’ve poured your heart and soul into a story, revised it umpteen times, and finally, painfully, thankfully finished it. You spent hours—days, weeks, even months—building your world and piecing it all together. Everything had a purpose. If you had an editor and beta readers, they helped you to trim out the excess and focus in on what matters, so how do you then chop out even more?
One of the first things I see people do is analyze the aspects of their story and try to figure out what subplots can go or what scenes can be condensed—basically, they try to figure out what content to cut. But that doesn’t always have to be your first move. There are a few other things you can start with that can easily bring down your word count without touching the worldbuilding and plotting you worked so hard on.
one sentence at a time
Let’s start with the best advice I can give you: aim to take out one word per sentence.
That’s it. One word from each sentence. Your book has thousands of sentences, so imagine what will happen when you take out one word from each: you’ll cut down on thousands of words without ever touching the core of your storytelling. What’s better, you’ll learn how to write more concisely with a tighter structure and more action.
You’d be surprised just how slack we can become with our writing—we fill it up with filler words, adverbs, passive voice, wordy phrasing, and all kinds of extra stuff. Even us editors tend to do it in our own stories!
Let’s take a closer look at some of those “extras” and see if we can knock a few out, shall we?
Filler words can be removed without affecting the meaning of the sentence. The most common filler word is that, and you probably have quite a few to clear out; I know I usually do. Take a look at this handy infographic from GrammarCheck and see if there are other common filler words you can cut from your work.
Keep in mind that not every instance of these words will need to be removed. Use your best judgment to analyze whether or not the word is necessary. (After all, there’s a huge difference between “she loved him” and “maybe she loved him.”)
An adverb is a word that describes how an action was performed. It usually ends with -ly (though not always). Many bestselling authors advise taking out every adverb you can find in your manuscript, and I am in no position to argue with people who clearly did something right. But I have to admit, I’m not on board. Adverbs, like every other part of speech, have their place in the writer’s toolbox. However, authors do commonly misuse adverbs to “tell” what a character’s emotion is rather than show it.
He walked away angrily.
This is blatant telling, but it’s also an opportunity to trim down our word count. Consider the verb being used and the tone that the adverb is lending to it, and see if you can find a stronger verb that expresses that.
He stomped away.
And with that, we’ve easily cut a word from our word count.
Side note, though. A lot of adverbs can be replaced this way, but there will be instances where you’ll actually want to add more, even if only a single line, to better show the scene. Although you’re aiming to trim down your word count, these additions can provide depth and emotion to your characters, so they’re worth it in the end.
To help with adverbs, do a search through your document for “ly”. It will show up A LOT because they won’t all be adverbs. But don’t freak out. Start at the top and just scroll through checking them out one at a time, and you’ll easily pick out the adverbs that can be revised and tightened. The ones you want to pay the most attention to are the ones that “say” an emotion: happily, angrily, sadly, etc.
In the simplest terms, this is when the action of a sentence is being done to the subject rather than the subject doing the action.
Passive: He was tormented by his demons.
In that line, “he” appears to be the subject, but he’s not doing the tormenting. An active version will make sure the subject is doing the action.
Active: His demons tormented him.
In the revised line, “his demons” are the subject and they are doing the tormenting. Not only is the second sentence much more concise, and flows better, but we cut out two words as well.
Finding passive voice can be tricky, and some people will tell you that if you’ve used the word “was,” you’ve got passive voice. However, not every use of “was” is passive. The key is to pay attention to the word immediately after.
If “was” is followed by a verb that ends in -ed, it’s almost certainly passive.
She was consumed by her grief.
They were covered in blood.
The table was cluttered with papers.
All of these sentences can be revised to be more active by ensuring the subject does the action.
Her grief consumed her.
Blood covered them.
Papers cluttered the table.
We just removed two words per sentence with a quick switch-up!
If you’re having trouble figuring out whether a verb is passive, try adding “by zombies” after it. If it still makes sense, it’s passive!
The suitcase was handed to him . . . by zombies.
He was chased through town . . . by zombies.
If “was” is followed by a verb that ends in -ing, it’s not passive voice; it’s just wordy and often with a passive tone.
She was looking through the window.
At least half the time, you can cut your word count by taking out the “was” and changing the verb to -ed.
She looked through the window.
Use your best judgment to determine if the tighter phrasing will fit without changing your meaning.
We all use wordy phrasing sometimes, using ten words when we can say it in five. As you read through your sentences, look out for anything that can be condensed, such as the previous example’s “was” combined with an -ing verb. A big one for me is sentences that start with “There was/were.” These can almost always be trimmed down.
There were six tables that had food on them.
That sentence can easily be reduced in a few ways.
Six tables had food on them.
Six tables held food.
Then there are words like began, started, and continued. Unless the fact that the action is just now starting makes a real difference, they can be safely removed. In the following sentence, we were able to remove two words without even breaking a sweat.
He began to clear off the table, carefully stacking dishes in his arms.
He cleared off the table, carefully stacking dishes in his arms.
Similar to those, we have words like suddenly and instantly. If the verb they describe is an action that is sudden on its own, then using words like these is redundant. The same can be said for words like quickly and slowly. These sorts of words are best reserved for times when they contradict the verb. The two sentences below mean the exact same thing.
He suddenly jumped up and quickly rushed out of the room.
He jumped up and rushed out of the room.
Some of the wordy phrases I’m completely guilty of myself are just as redundant. They have extra words in them that can easily be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence because the verb itself implies more than it says. Things like:
She sat down. > She sat.
He stood up. > He stood.
They nodded their heads in acceptance. > They nodded in acceptance.
He shook his head no. > He shook his head.
She thought to herself. > She thought.
Sitting usually implies down unless otherwise specified, just as standing implies up. Your head is the only body part you use to nod with, and shaking your head universally represents “no.” And if you think something, it’s going to be to yourself. These kinds of phrases are a great way to trim down that word count!
Next, let’s tackle dialogue. A huge percentage of your story will rely on what your characters are saying, so as you go through dialogue, check for how they are speaking. There’s a good chance you can cut some words in there. Not every character speaks perfectly and formally, especially with their friends, so check for places where contractions would flow naturally. Check for how often your characters are saying each other’s names when they speak. That’s always an easy one to cut.
Hello, Tim! It is so great to see you.
John! Why, hello yourself! You look well.
Thank you, Tim.
Anytime at all, John.
See what I mean? The last two names can come out and “It is” can be contracted, leaving us with natural, flowing dialogue. This also extends to dialogue tags. If two characters are speaking back and forth, we don’t need to clarify every line.
“Did you ever defeat that dragon?” Sidala asked.
“Uh, no . . . but also yes,” Stof said.
“Well, which is it?” Sidala said.
“What matters is that he won’t be bothering us anymore,”Stof said.
Since we know Sidala and Stof are talking back and forth, we can take out the last two dialogue tags. It’s clear who is speaking. That’s four more words cut out!
You can even get into more personalized things, like actions that characters repeat too often. For example, if a character smiles every other paragraph, some of those smiles can be removed.
It doesn’t take much to
start lowering lower your word count. 😉 Just take it one sentence at a time. With practice, your writing will improve and you’ll find that you have fewer words that need removing.
Don’t forget to take a brief break from your work after you finish it before revising. And be sure to use multiple beta readers if you can! Having a fresh set of eyes (or five) on your story can do wonders not just for your word count but for the quality of your words as well.
Are there any other ways you like to trim your word count? Share them in the comments!
stock images from Pixabay