For the past few weeks, I’ve been a woman on a mission.
I’ve been trying to reduce my work-in-progress, The Daughters Of August Winterbourne (Book I) down to 125,000 words. The first draft weighed in at around 185,000 words; the second draft, which I considered pretty solid and lean, was 145,000 words. But I knew I had to cut more, and so (as chronicled previously) I embarked on my most stringent edit yet.
I’m now about 2/3 of the way through that edit, and I have the manuscript down below 131,000 words. It’s going to be close, but I might, just might, be able to meet the 125,000 word goal.
In the process, I’m learning a lot about how to reduce wordiness in a manuscript. Here are some of my most frequent offenders:
- “All of”. In most cases, “all of” isn’t needed. In this story in particular, I have “Celia and all of her sisters” doing things together. A lot. But removing “all of” doesn’t really change the meaning: “Celia and her sisters” conveys the meaning just as well, if not better.
- “That”. I thought the 7,652* occurrences of the word “that” I’d already removed in the previous edit round would have been enough, but going through the story again, I found plenty more.
- Contractions. Okay, yes, it’s the Victorian era, and it might be more correct to limit the use of contractions…and it might help add to one’s NaNoWriMo word count…but dialogue without contractions ends up sounding stiff and stilted. I can still do things with sentence structure and word choice to lend an antique feel to the dialogue, but replacing parts of words with apostrophes has improved dialogue flow. And characters who don’t use contractions–ones for whom English is not their native tongue, generally–now stand out more.
- Dialogue tags. I could do a whole entry on just dialogue tags, but I think I’ll save that for another day. But one particular form of dialogue tag needs to be mentioned here: the kind that combines a dialogue tag with an action. For example:
“Very well,” said Celia, turning to leave.
Which isn’t horrible. But if I change it to:
“Very well.” Celia turned to leave.
It’s cleaner, tighter, flows better…and I just saved two words. Which, I blush to admit, adds up to a lot.
- “Just”. About nine times out of ten, I can remove the word “just” from a sentence without significantly changing the meaning. So “A voice rang out from just beyond the trees” becomes “A voice rang out from beyond the trees.” I’d be willing to bet that your mental image of where the speaker was standing didn’t change much between the two versions of the sentence.
- Adverbs. I’m not going to say you can’t use them, ever. But make sure they add something to the sentence that couldn’t be done by making better word choices elsewhere: “He walked softly” vs. “He crept”, for example.
- “Seemed/Felt/Couldn’t Help”. If your POV character feels something, the reader assumes that she’s the one feeling it, so you don’t need to state that. For example, change “It seemed to Celia that the night air was growing colder” to “The night air grew colder.” I also have a lot of characters who “couldn’t help” doing something–couldn’t help grinning, couldn’t help laughing, etc. While it’s okay to do that once or twice, most of the time, “grinned” and “laughed” work just as well, if not better.
- “Was [verb]ing”. You can usually change these to [verbed] instead: “Celia was looking down at the crowd” vs. “Celia looked down at the crowd.”
Looking at this list, I can see that not only do these culprits add unnecessary words to my word count, but they keep my writing from being as tight and strong as it deserves to be.
What other tricks have people learned for reducing word counts?
* Okay, I didn’t actually count them. But it seemed like that many.