8 ways to trim your novel’s word count
You’ve finished your novel. And it’s a bigger beast than you expected it to be. Huge. How did you write so many words? You’re magnificent.
But, unfortunately, there are rough word count guidelines for traditional publishing (which loosely work with self-publishing, too), so if your YA urban romance is pushing 130k then you’ve got a problem.
When you’re considerably far beyond your ideal count, trimming the odd word or two seems barely worth the effort. However, when these examples crop up regularly, you’ll be surprised how much you can trim from your novel.
And, what’s more, looking for these cheeky little extras makes you pay closer attention to the writing which helps you critically assess the bigger picture. You will be amazed what you can see in your writing when you’re forced to look at it under a microscope.
Before we go on, these tips might not be for every one. Some of the things I suggest cutting are not 'bad things to have in your novel'. But when your WIP is way over count, you can't pull punches and the things that might work in shorter books have to go.
Without further ado, here are eight tips for trimming your novel’s word count.
1. Ditch the unnecessary information
We’re starting big and I know you love every description and scene and dream sequence in your novel but we’re going hard today. No mercy. No survivors. There will be bits of information or micro-scenes in your WIP that you can cut. I guarantee it. Opening chapters and prologues are usually the worst culprits for information dumping.
Evaluate every scene with real scrutiny and ask yourself this: If I cut this line/extract/flashback would the reader still be able to comfortably follow the story? If the answer is yes – CUT IT.
2. Don’t let your characters repeat themselves
This is a tricky one to spot because the repetitions aren’t always close together. Unless you’re analysing a section as a whole, you might miss them. Take this example:
‘Did you go over to Martin’s last night?’
I couldn’t help but wonder why he was asking since he clearly knew the answer. What was he hoping to get from me? A confession? An apology? ‘Why bother asking? I know Beth already told you.’
We have two cases of unnecessary repetition here (green and blue). As humans, yes we often think about what we’re going to say before we say it, but in books we don’t need this element of ‘realism’ because it’s just the same information told twice. We definitely don't need it in a book 20k words over its recommended limit.
3. Find your habit words
We all have them, trust me. There will be certain words that you use an unusual amount. Mine are ‘well’, ‘so’, and (as I learned recently) ‘just’. I have to edit them out whenever I write one of these blogs or my novel.
The annoying thing is that they’re often hard to spot on your own because you’re so familiar with them. Your best option is to get an editor or a beta reader to flag them for you. Once you become aware, it’s scary how often they crop up. But the good news is that once you learn of them, you’ll have a much easier time spotting them in the rest of your work.
4. Don’t overuse character names
This is one I fall victim to Every. Single. Time. I genuinely cannot write a first draft without having each character say every other characters’ name in dialogue. Seriously, this is a note I wrote to myself while editing my own work (I promise I’m not as harsh to my clients as I am to myself!)
The reality is, we really don’t use people’s names in natural speech very often. Try it – pay attention to a particular conversation. I’ll bet names are rarely mentioned beyond introductions and greetings or farewells – and not always then.
5. Cut unnecessary modifiers
One thing I see from a fair few writers (and I do it too) is adding unnecessary modifiers that, in most cases, actually weaken the description they're modifying.
She was quite beautiful.
We don’t need the ‘quite’ here. And if ‘beautiful’ on its own is too strong a word, try ‘pretty’, ‘attractive’, ‘pleasing’ instead.
The party went very well.
‘Very’ is a weak modifier. Instead of saying ‘very well’, try ‘brilliantly’ or ‘splendidly’ or ‘marvellously’.
6. Use contractions
This one won’t work if you’re going for a particular tone with your book (for instance, you might have a first-person narrative with a very posh, well-spoken MC), but more often than not you can use contractions to trim your word count.
He had not seen her for years – He hadn’t seen her for years.
She had always loved him though – She’d always loved him though.
7. Eliminate redundant words
These words are often hard to spot because they sound natural to us but when you pick up on them it becomes obvious how unnecessary they are.
He nodded his head.
What else could he nod?
She sat down on the sofa.
Yes, you can sit ‘up’, but we know that’s not what is meant here so you don’t need the 'down', either.
She asked questioningly / She asked the question.
You would be surprised how many times I see this. To ‘ask’ means to pose a question. She asked or She questioned work fine.
Exactly the same – Just ‘the same’ will do
Competed with each other – 'competed' is enough
Completely surrounded – 'surrounded' works alone
Brief moment – 'moment' is fine
8. Change your passive voice
First, let me say that passive voice is not the terrible thing you might have heard it is. *Audible gasps from the back*. Yes, sometimes passive voice is perfectly fine to use and in certain cases it’s actually better than active.
That said, if you want to cut your word count down, finding your passive sentences are a good little gold mine. Generally, the passive version of a sentence is longer than the active, so unless you really need it, switch to active and lose some words.
The car had been stolen by a woman in her fifties. (11 words)
A woman in her fifties stole the car. (8 words)
Bonus tip for spotting passive voice – if you can add 'by zombies' to the end of the sentence and have it make sense, it's passive.
The church was built in 1587...by zombies
He was being chased through the woods...by zombies
The power of small changes
A lot of these edits are minor and they may seem not worth doing. But in order to carve a statue out of marble, you don’t lop off huge chunks at a time. You chip away at small areas, smoothing out the curves and adding definition to details. It’s a thorough process that cannot be rushed but in the end you are left with a piece of art you can be proud of.