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Monday, October 8, 2012

How To Lower Your Word Count (As Painlessly As Possible!)

Any writer knows the horrible feeling of having to lower their word count.  Whether you're 10,000 or 1,000 words over the limit, cutting words can be a tough thing that can make you want to bang your head into a wall out of sheer frustration.  (more on word count frustration here)

Trust me.  I've been there.

Sometimes, you have to cut words in order to fit the regulations of a school assignment.  Maybe you want to enter your 2,500 word story into a contest with a 2,000 word limit.  Or maybe you just don't want agents to cringe at your 115,000 word count.  Either way, you're going to have to do some cutting.

For the most efficient and painless (well, relatively, since there will always be something you hate to cut but have to) word count lowering, it's best to do it in two steps.

Step 1: Big Picture 
Look at your story as a whole.  Are there chapters that don't need to be there?  Do you have scenes that add nothing to the story?  Do you have plot threads not pulling their weight?  Get rid of them. 

But keep in mind--getting rid of them is never your only option.  Maybe you have two scenes that don't quite fit on their own.  Solution?  Combine them.  Then you'll have one shorter, stronger scene rather than two weak ones taking up space in your word count. 

To do a simple does-this-need-to-be-here-or-not test on a scene, a chapter, or whatever, look closely at the part in question.  Ask yourself, "Would the story stand on its own without this piece?  If I took this out, would the story be missing something?"  If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you can cut the scene. 

Once you've eliminated all the big chunks that aren't necessary, it's time to look a little closer.

Step 2: Word-By-Word
Now, go through your story, looking at each individual line.  Do you really need that adjective?  Is there an unnecessary adverb?  Did you say something with two words, when you really only needed one?  Does that piece of dialogue add anything to the story?

Also, go through and look for filler words.  Words like "then", "very", "really", and others are almost never needed in your prose.  (For more on filler words to watch out for, go here.)  Keep an eye on how often your characters use each others' names in dialogue.  In real life, people rarely actually say each others' names in the middle of a conversation.  Make sure you aren't overdoing it in your writing.  Eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags (more on this here).

Often, you'll find that it's easier to eliminate one word here and there than to take out huge chunks of writing.  That way, you won't have to give up a whole chapter--just a bunch of scattered, unneeded words.

Now, cutting words will never be a painless process.  Hard decisions are inevitable.  You're going to have to get rid of stuff you'd rather keep, but that's how it works.  Still, I hope this post made cutting words a little easier for you.
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  1. What about increasing word count? Is it better to describe settings, characters, or events more, or is it better to add in an extra plot twist?

    1. Increasing word count is a trickier subject. I would stay away from adding extra description (unless your story is already bare-bones), as it easily becomes unnecessary filler. It's probably better to add something extra to your plot--a new subplot, for instance. Even with this you have to be careful of making sure it fits with the story, and feels natural. Make sure it adds something worthwhile.

      I hope I helped with your questions. I you have any more, feel free to ask away, or send me an email at theanniemarie(at)gmail(dot)com. :)


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