I have a confession to make. Up to this point, I’ve only cut 50,000 words. I know. I’m ashamed of me too. Before I start, I will tell you that the last 20,000 was the hardest part, but the first 40,000 went by in a breeze.
Now, I’m not an advocate for “short sentences are the best sentences.” I could kill Hemmingway, in fact, if he didn’t do it to himself already. With booze I think? Anyway. The following suggestions are for people with books they want shorter. These are simple steps into how I got rid of almost the size of a second manuscript, not necessarily about how to improve your writing.
So what happened?
Last year I finished a book in five months, landing at 180,000 words. For those of you who don’t know, 100,000 was supposed to be my max. Now, luckily it’s science fiction, and that’s a genre that they allow to be slightly bigger than others because you have to go into all these tiny details to explain that there is such a thing as clocks in this world, and they do get their milk from cows. Just cows on another planet. So, while 120,000 is still perhaps too long, it is often considered in the “acceptable zone.”
When I brag about this achievement, people asked me why it matters. Simply, bigger books are more expensive to make. That means that if it flops, the publishers are out even more money. They often have to charge more and readers notice. Secondly, readers have certain expectations, and they’re less likely to buy a very short book or a very long book.
I knew the plot wasn’t set up to be two separate books, so I really only had two options: Wait until I was famous with some of my other manuscripts or cut it.
Step One: Accept that there might be nothing to cut.
By taking a relaxed look at it and saying to yourself, “If I can’t cut it down, then I will leave it as is,” you take pressure off yourself and are better able to make good decisions. The problem with cutting a great deal is you start hacking away at important scenes, or removing “swayers” (Things that subtly influence readers’ opinions.) By telling yourself that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get it down, and by accepting this will take several reads, you are less likely to take out something important or get overwhelmed.
Step Two: Cut everything you know you want to.
The easiest step for me. Before I even read it again, there were a lot of sections I knew I had started to explore that never went anywhere. There were directions that I started to go that I changed my mind about. There should be a few things about the story that you already know you could probably remove.
Step Three: Retell the story to yourself. Read the story. Which parts did you forget about?
This needs to be done early on, before you’ve read the manuscript sixteen times. Or sometimes it works then too, but it’s most useful when you don’t remember the plot that well. Summarize the story in good detail (maybe make an outline or synopsis, which you probably want to have anyway), then read the book. There are parts that you won’t even remember happened. They might be the perfect place to cut.
Step Four: Reread. Don’t want to read a section again? See if you can cut it.
This was a great step. I would be going through my book, dreading the next part, and then realize that I didn’t have to really read it again. I’d skim it, see if there was important information, and if I could just cut it, I did. Takes out the boring parts and works off your laziness (the only thing more powerful than the ego).
Step Five: Cut down on those scenes you wanted to cut, but couldn’t.
Now, it is sometimes a relief to realize you can’t just go hacking. Being able to slash through chapter after chapter is an indication of something that I didn’t really want to be true. So you might find that boring scene is really important. Then what? Cut it down.
Make the scene as physically short as possible. That includes deleting any lines you can get away with, deleting extra words, deleting extra syllables, etc. By making the scene take less time to read, it is going to be less boring, so again, killing two birds with one stone.
Step Six: Line cuts.
Now we’re getting down to the grind. It’s time to start shortening as many scenes as you can. This is the place where “kill your darlings” might come into play. If you have a line you love, you don’t need to cut it, but if it’s the only reason you’re keeping a huge section of unimportant dialogue, then yes, it’d help.
Focus on the beginning of conversations and scenes and see if you can’t start further in. If you have places where you told people what you just showed them, delete that too. I ended up deleting a lot of emotions, internal thoughts, and descriptions of pain, leaving only action. It was distancing (the reader knows the character worse now) but it was more atmospheric, especially for the tone I was going for, so I was happy with the results, even though I probably would have preferred it the other way if I didn’t need to shorten.
Step Seven: Pay attention to “transitions” and “explanations.”
Transitions are the bane of my career. This is a section in a book when you’re trying to get a character from Point A to Point B, either in physical location or emotional. How do I take them from lovey-dovey to furious? How do they get inside the fortress? How do I get them out of jail? Blah, blah, blah. Most of the story is about convincing characters to do things, or enabling them to. A lot of the time these scenes only exist to explain something to the audience and holds no other purpose. I want to get rid of them, but I can’t.
Or, there are scenes that I call “explanations,” in which I have to spend the time dealing with the ramifications of previous event… Ramifications that aren’t necessarily important. Having a whole scene dedicated to convincing someone to not be mad anymore (someone who has every right to be), is a waste of word count for me.
This is where you have to get creative. You can cut down on these scenes, which helps, but it’s really useful to find either quicker ways to transition, or start combining scenes. I have the problem of what I call, “There and Back Again,” (in honor of The Hobbit) in which characters will go someone where else then come back. Over and over. If I can make everything that happens there happen all at once, then I try to do that.
Combine information from another scene to make it have more of a point and cut the other completely. Move scenes around so that the explanation or transition isn’t necessary. Or, the hardest one, change the original concept. (She’s not there at all to see the event, so she can’t be mad.)
Before making a big change, save as a new draft. Then go for it. What I do is make the change then wait a couple of days and see if I still regret it. If I do, I go back to the original draft and put it back in. This has only happened once.
Step Eight: Look for “stalling.”
“Stalling” is where the author is trying to figure something out, but still writing. An excellent technique in the process (nothing inspires you like being in-world and making decisions), it is useful to watch out for in the editing process. Especially when a book is too long.
This manifests in information delivery; do your characters keep retelling the same information in different ways? You were probably not satisfied with the way you said it. Take the last way you said it, replace it with the first, and delete the others. Do you spend a lot of time not giving out information? Are there scenes where nothing is answered? Did you not know the answer at that time? Those are stalling scenes, and you can get rid of them.
It also comes in the form of word choice. I remember I once watched an actor performing my play, and I sat there thinking, “Did he forget his lines, or is that how I wrote them?” I couldn’t tell because how he stalled—adding in extra words, taking more time to say things—is how I did. It looked the same to me. Apparently this is called “sticky words.” This is where your English class comes in handy. While “excess” words and phrases like, “In regards to,” “very,” and most prepositions can be perfectly fine, if you are trying to cut a big chunk, this is an easy way to do it without changing the story itself.
Step Nine: Phrase cuts.
Which brings us to step nine. Phrase cuts are where I found a series of words that minimally influenced (or sometimes not at all) the sentence.
I often go through and look for prepositional phrases. In most context, prepositions clarify things, and sometimes you can get away with not clarifying them at all. The line that stands out most to me was, “she looked at the paint peeling on the wall.” Paint could be anywhere, but considering they were in the room, the assumption would probably be that if she watched paint peeling, it was not on the ceiling, or on the dresser if I didn’t say otherwise. So, “She looked at the paint peeling,” was fine.
You’ll note in doing this the sentences might start to sound funny. “He thought,” is an unusual sentence, but “he thought about it,” is fine. You do have to look for cadence when removing prepositions, not just meaning. Also, there were times when I thought something was obvious without the preposition, but it did confuse matters. Remember, you put the phrase there for a reason, so consider what the reason is before hacking away at it.
Another big one for me was, “started to,” or “was beginning to.” I just clicked Control-F and went through the whole document finding all of them. I got rid of 500 words by changing, “The ground started to shake,” to “The ground shook.” I also cut a lot of “for a moments,” and "for a second."
Of course, it’s a very different image, one being abrupt and one being gradual, so not all of them could be changed. Many of them, however, I didn’t care.
Also, you will probably be able to get rid of all “was –ing” phrases. This only gets rid of one word, but it adds up. So “He was swimming,” can be changed to “He swam.” Again, this affects duration of the moment (He was swimming implying he swam longer), but question how important it is before you get stuck on it.
Step Ten: Word cuts.
The most tedious and painful part of the cutting process. I got to this point at about 20,000 words left. It took forever. But by the time the story couldn’t have any more scenes cut without it making sense, and it had gotten to a place where I really liked the pacing and plot mapping, it was really the best way to not risk the story for stupid word count.
I calculated how many words per page I had to delete—78—by taking the amount I wanted to delete by the number of pages there was. Then I went in and copied out a single chapter, times the pages numbers of the chapter by 78, subtracted that product from the total, and deleted until I got down to that difference.
So, for example:
# of words to be cut (20,000) divided by # of pages in book (say 300) = 66.66666666667, so 67 words.
Grabbed one chapter. # of pages in chapter (say 5 pages) times by 67 = 335 words. # of words in chapter (say 2,500) subtract 335 = 2,165. So I delete words in the new document until the word count says 2,165.
So now I’m going through, chapter per chapter, slowly whittling it down. I’m 8k away from 120,000 words, and about 1/3 of the way through the book. I will say that, because of certain choices I’ve made, I’ve found I can get the book down to 115,000 words just in this method.
Why did I do it this way instead of just deleting extra words as I saw them? Because it took away the pressure of making decisions.
The one thing I found out was, in most circumstances, the sentence was perfectly fine either way. Sometimes it was much better. Sometimes much worse (and I’d change it back), but mostly it just didn’t make much of a difference to me. When I don’t have a low arbitrary goal of numbers, then I look at a sentence that is perfectly fine the way it is, and I can’t predict if it will be better, worse, or the same. Not until after I have changed it. You can’t do that with every single sentence you read. In this method I was able to skip over the sentences I had questions about, then, at the end, when I didn’t have enough cuts, I’d go back and change it. I didn’t have the pressure to make the decision right then.
I always err on the side of leaving things the way they are, and I knew that if I just deleted excess words, I’d hit the end far off than my intended goal. I’d have to read the whole book again—but this isn’t reading. You don’t get to get enamored in the story, and the moment you do, you stop cutting. So it’s a very painful process, and it’s much easier when you cut down on your options.
Words that I cut a lot of: “That,” “the,” quantifiers like “a little,” “a few,” “a couple,” “very,” “about,” prepositions like “around” and “back,” and pretty much anything that an English teacher would tell you. Sometimes I had to leave them. Sometimes it ruined the cadence or mudded the meaning, even changing the meaning, but being open to removing them was very useful. (Here’s a sentence I might remove “the” “a” or “his” from, if you were wondering: “He ignored Raiden, hand over the wound in his chest.” I believe it was originally “a hand over the wound.”) Does it sound weird? Yep. That’d be the risks.
The main rule of thumb when cutting is to relax. Don’t stress out about if you’re cutting enough. Don’t worry about keeping everything in its original incarnation. Remember quality is flexible, you can always put things back, and by having the arbitrary demand of “shorter!” it stops being about “right and wrong,” and you’ll be far more willing to take risks. This is a good thing.