Trimming Just a Few More Words

At the end of December, I finished another round of revisions on the sequel to The Orphan Queen (OQ2 for short). Let’s just say…it’s a big book. The draft I turned in to my editor was, ahem, 135,100 words. Give or take. She asked me to please make it less big. A reasonable request.

As I was writing that draft, I was pretty conscious of its size. I did a lot of editing while drafting to keep the wordcount down, so there wasn’t a lot of extra when I turned it in. Still, I knew she was right: there was room to trim. By the time I finished the first round of editing, the novel was down to 131,000 words. I thought the writing was already pretty tight, but I decided I could cut another 1,000 words for an even 130k, if I really put my mind to it.

So that’s exactly what I did.

I spent a weekend with the goal: trim 1,000 unnecessary words from the manuscript. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things I looked for.

1. Have I used five words where one would do? Combine! Condense! Of course, this can change the meaning of the sentence, so make sure you know what you wanted to say, and what you actually are saying.

Example 1:
Kippy is going to be in bed by ten.
Kippy’s in bed by ten.

Example 2:
She could be a lot of help in pacifying the troublemakers.
She could help pacify the troublemakers.

2. Is that sentence/paragraph necessary to the story? If it doesn’t do something for the plot, reveal something about the character, or expand the world, that sentence can probably go.

Example 3:
I walked past the torches lighting the hall.
I passed torches.

If you’ve established she’s walking through a hall and she can see, it’s unnecessary to repeat that she’s walking, and unnecessary to say that the torches are lighting the hall. What else would torches be doing? And yes, it can be argued that the sentence isn’t necessary as it is. Something more useful would have to be added to make it worth keeping.

3. Clear up the action cluttering your dialogue. A lot of times I add things like “I smoothed back my hair.” or “She leaned on the table and traced the grains in the wood.”

Sometimes those are useful and give the reader a clue about the character’s emotional state. Maybe she’s smoothing her hair because she’s nervous or self conscious. Maybe she’s becoming familiar with the wood grain because she’s avoiding a conversation or thinking up a response.

But more often than not, those get added because it feels like the dialogue needs a pause, and we don’t want to use “I said” again. Or we feel like the character should do something. But those little actions can be distracting. They clutter the dialogue and force the reader to adjust their mental image on a tiny scale that ultimately isn’t adding to the story.

4. Redundancies. I frequently cut instances “I nodded” when the character immediately says “Yes” after, or “I shook my head” when the character says “No.” It’s a small redundancy that’s easy to trim. Similarly, I tend to repeat information (so that I know it) and later have to go back and cut the least interesting instance of it.

Or, the biggie, is that I’ll have my character plan to do something, and then she goes out and does it. It’s always best for me to ditch the planning part and keep the action.

What about you? Any trimming tips?


4 Responses to Trimming Just a Few More Words

  1. Marilynn Byerly Dec 8 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    From working with writers over the years, I’d say that the primary thing most writers need to cut is writer information. We sometimes do our thinking on the page before we write down what the reader needs to see, and we fail to cut that out.

    Writers also tend toward too much introspection. If all a character is doing in a scene is thinking about other things, get rid of that scene and insert that information into dialogue.

    The great Phyllis Whitney once said that the only reason a character should be folding laundry and thinking is so an ax murderer can sneak up on her, and the reader knows this through subtle clues.

    There’s also the rule of three. If a scene doesn’t contain at least one or two plot points (information or events which move the plot forward), and one or two character points (important character information) so that you have at least three points total, then it should be tossed, and whatever points included in that scene should be added to another scene.

    For major cuts, you can also consolidate several secondary characters into one character, or a subplot can be simplified or removed if it doesn’t influence the major plot or the influence can be moved to another subplot.

  2. Cari Dec 8 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    Some of the more challenging advice I received was this summer in my linguistics class: cut almost all dialogue tags like “I said”, “she asked”, “they shouted.” Punctuation and quotation marks let the readers know someone is talking and how. Sometimes, tags are needed in long portions of dialogue, but it’s forced me to be less lazy as I choose words and describe scenes.

  3. Alexa S. Dec 14 2014 at 11:41 pm #

    Seriously, great tips, Jodi! I always think there’s a way to cut down on the words in any draft of anything I’ve ever written, so I’ll definitely be keeping your tips in mind 🙂

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