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Five Ways to Cut the Number of Words in Your Manuscript

Dear Readers,

How do you react when an editor says:  “Cut this manuscript. It’s too long?”

The first thoughts that go through your head might be: “No. I need all those words. I thought up every single one of them. They are my precious babies.”

It may be hard for you, as an author, to let go of the words  you fought many hours to create and get down on paper. However, it is in revising that you transform your good writing into a masterpiece. When you realize this, you hesitate only a moment and ask, “Can you give me ways to cut it down? How do I choose which words to eliminate?”  Eliminate superfluous words that don’t carry the plot, character and emotional theme of the story forward.

In his “3 Ways to Cut Your Final Draft Down to Size,” James Vektor says, “With every word you put on the page, with ever sentence, you should ask yourself the following questions: Is it needed? Would the story lack without it? Am I providing new and/or crucial information?”

After reading the works listed below and many others, here are five ways to cut the number of words in your manuscript:

1. Be sure the reader enters the story at the time it’s essential to understand the plot, characters, or emotion. Not a minute too soon or too late. Sometimes backstory information was written down so that you, the author, could understand it better. This was good. However, this might be information the readers don’t need. Therefore, cut out the unnecessary backstory and put it in a folder so that you can resurrect it later, if you need it. If the reader doesn’t need to know it, cut it out.

2. Choose one word to replace phrases. Choose phrases to replace clauses.  Change prepositional phrases like teacher at Fairbanks School to Fairbanks School teacher to adjective noun. (Darcy Pattison and Joe Hight both mention this in their articles listed below.)

3. Cut the adverbs. Replace them with strong verbs. (There are at least 20 sources that tell authors to do this.)

4. Don’t interrupt dialogue too many times with unnecessary actions. Cut the facial expressions and body gestures, like grimacing her face, raising her eyebrows, lighting his cigarette.  Let the bigger actions speak for the characters. Make sure these actions are not ordinary. They are actions only a character like yours would do.  Let them move the plot, highlight the character, and/or add emotional tension. Dialogue that is interrupted too many times with unnecessary actions like these might make a reader put your book down forever. Highlight the words in your text that interrupt the dialogue.

5. Rewrite the dialogue so it can be understood without tags of he said, she said.

Here are resources that I found helpful in researching this topic:

1. Darcy Pattison, “Stop! Cut Picture Book Mss by 1/3.” http://www.darcypattison.com/picture-books/cut-picture-book-mss/

2. Joe Hight, Free Books Online, Mastering Communication:  “Too Many Words Can Muddle Writing,” http://free-books-online.org/mastering_communication/the-newspaper-handbook/too-many-words-can-muddle-writing/

3.  James Vektor, Hub Pages: Screenplay Length: “3 Ways to Cut Your Final Draft Down to Size,” http://hubpages.com/hub/Script-Format-Script-Length-That-Sells/. It has a good video interview with Screenwriter Paul Haggis who was the first screenwriter to write two Best Film Oscar winners back-to-back in 2006.

4. Renni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Harper Collins, 1993.

If you need to cut your manuscript words down to the quality every word counts, use these five ways to eliminate unnecessary words.

I hope  reading my blog inspires you to Never Give Up on your writing.

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Don’t Give Up. Have a Flip Flap Floodle Day!

Joan Y. Edwards

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Copyright 2010 Joan Y. Edwards. All rights reserved.


4 Responses

  1. This is good if you need to cut your word count.

    Now, can we apply these rules in reverse if we need to make the story LONGER??? If I
    have a 2500 word story that would be perfect for a market, except they want 3000 words
    or more?

    Sometimes you need to go the other way, longer, not shorter, and hardly anyone writes
    handy hint columns on how to do THAT!


  2. Hi Joan,

    I’m revising something presently and I have to watch my word count. This article appeared at a good time for me. Thank you.

    Linda A.


    • Dear Linda, Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad this blog post about cutting words when revising your manuscript. Have a great day.

      Have a Flip Flap Floodle Day!

      Joan Y. Edwards, Author/Illustrator Flip Flap Floodle http://www.joanyedwards.com/FlipFlapFloodle.htm Flip at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Flip-Flap-Floodle-Joan-Edwards/dp/1594572852/ Never Give Up Blog http://www.joanyedwards.wordpress.com


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