When it comes to writing and word count, you’re always up against the Goldilocks principle: you don’t want too much or too little—you’ve got to get it just right.
Personally, I am always on the side of too much. Especially by the time I’ve gotten through my edits, I’ve usually inched up to a word count that’s waaaay over my target goal. So when those alarm bells start going off and you find yourself staring at a book you need to cut 10,000+ words from, where do you begin?
Is it time to start chopping entire scenes and subplots?
Does some side character or love story get the ax?
Maybe not. Try these things first.
1. Look at your transitions.
Transitions are those little connector pieces that help you pass time and distance or move between scenes quickly. You know: Three weeks passed in a flash… Two hours later… As the days grew colder and the leaves began to change… Sometimes it’s just white space on the page before a new scene picks up in a new place. Transitions can be practically invisible, because when they’re done well, you often don’t notice them.
And that’s what makes them a great place to start cutting word count. In a fantasy book, for example, how much of your character traveling to a new kingdom do you really need to portray? If nothing important happens, could you use skip right to the destination?
Do you find yourself filling in a lot of details about the days before an important event? (Think of the multiple scenes of Cinderella sewing her stepsisters’ dresses and doing chores in the run-up to the ball.)
Do you get into the minutiae of your characters opening doors and then entering rooms and then looking around—only then getting into a new scene? This one is my personal Achilles heel. Consider:
Cinderella reached for the door, pushing it open slowly. The ornate wood creaked on its rusted hinges. She stood in the opening, peering around at the royal gardens…
Or: Cinderella slipped into the royal gardens, marveling at the lush greenery as …
The first example has more rich detail, sure—but is it detail your reader needs or wants? Often, you’re better off saving those words for a more exciting moment: like Cinderella stumbling on her stepsisters trying to assassinate the king. (It could happen!)
Cutting transition words not only makes your writing tighter, but helps manage your pacing. Best of all, it’s usually material you won’t miss.
2. Cut down on description.
Description in books is vital—it deepens the world building and adds flavor and tone. It’s also easy to go overboard. As the author, you may have a picture in your head of exactly what your castle looks like, down to the last turret, balcony garden, and flying buttress. No matter how fantastically you paint that picture, though, consider cutting long descriptions and trading that for lines that evoke a feeling.
For example, when describing the ancient manor house where your gothic romance is set, you will absolutely want to detail the architecture, the overgrown ivy, and the twisted shapes of the gargoyles. But at some point, instead of counting off every peaked roof and creaky weathervane, your word count may be better served by subbing in a feeling line: The longer she stared up at the towering manor, the more it felt like it was looking back at her, the black windows shining like malevolent eyes.
Look carefully at any scene where you’re describing something for the second time: a second look at your haunted mansion, repeated trips to the castle library, etc. Trust your reader to remember your first glorious description—and use this to motivate yourself to make that original description absolutely sparkle.
3. Remove one word from every sentence or paragraph.
I wish I could remember where I heard this advice—I think it was at a writing conference. Regardless, I use this one all the time!
Cutting thousands of words from a manuscript is daunting, however you slice it. But think for a moment about removing a single word out of every sentence in your book. An 80,000-word book could easily have upward of 7,000 sentences, and some sentences have extra fluff in them, like “a little” or “very.” Obviously, some lines of dialogue or short action sentences might be as short as they can ever get. But even if you can only cut a word from every other line, or every paragraph, it’ll add up in a hurry.
Plus, there’s an added benefit: it really streamlines your writing. Like pruning extra leaves or branches, sharper and tighter prose makes the details you keep stand out. And any time you cut word count, you make your book a faster read.
Obviously, these tips won’t work for every project. Each book has its own voice and style, and as the author, you know it best. If you write in a very concise manner, cutting one word from each sentence could be devastating. Or if you’ve worked hard to include exactly the description that you need with no overflow, cutting it down would be a nonstarter.
Still, take a hard look at your transitions, long descriptions, and overstuffed sentences, because whenever you can cut truly unnecessary material, you get to keep something you really care about!
Leslie Vedder (she/her) is a queer ace author who loves fairytale retellings with girl adventurers and heroes! Her debut YA novel THE BONE SPINDLE is forthcoming in Spring 2022 from Penguin / Putnam Young Readers. She has a B.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University. You can find her on Twitter or at her website.