You finally finish your story and find it’s over word count for the publisher you’re targeting, or for the short story contest you want to enter. So comes the process of cutting your manuscript. Even if you’re self-publishing and there are no guidelines on story length, it’s useful to review your manuscript and make it as tight as possible.
And if you tend to write under the target word count, there are times when pruning is useful too!
Some writers like me tend to write longer than the publisher’s word count, so pruning back is vital. But it’s not just about cutting for the sake of cutting. I find that trimming my story focuses my attention on what’s important on the page and what isn’t. It helps me cut through waffle to get right to the heart of the story. That helps with the pacing and the emotional punch of the story.
Recently a friend, who doesn’t usually have the problem of going over her publisher’s desired word count, was asked to cut a little off her manuscript. She said later it was a great exercise in discovering what she’d written that wasn’t really necessary. So, whether you struggle to get as high as the requested word count, whether you absolutely need to trim to get down to it, or whether you’re just interested in making the story as tight as possible, these suggestions may help.
First up, if you can, leave a little time between finishing the story and editing. Time and the distraction of other work can help you identify areas for improvement.
Second, try another medium. If you write and revise on the computer, try printing a copy and sitting with a pen in hand in a space well away from where you write. It’s amazing how a different location and different format can help give you a new perspective. If you usually review your work on paper, try reading it on screen too.
Schedule a couple of interruptions. One of our difficulties as writers is that we get caught up in our own stories. That’s actually a huge plus but when it comes to editing, we need to read what’s actually on the page, not get swept up in the drama of the story, which can happen if we immerse ourselves. Get up after a scene or chapter break and stretch your legs, do some chores or anything else that will break the flow just enough that when you go back, you’re viewing the story as an outsider.
Look for well-used descriptors. How often in your manuscript do you refer to your hero’s piercing eyes or strong hands? To your heroine’s golden hair or cupid’s bow mouth or feisty stance? Authors use these tags because they’re relevant to the scene, but also because they lodge in our brain. Do a check on how often you describe your characters using the same words. That’s a chance to cut the description (the reader doesn’t need to hear about his chiselled jaw every time the heroine looks at him) or just to vary your word choices.
Similarly, look for overused actions. Our characters show us how they’re feeling not just by what they say but by what they do. Is your character biting her/his lip every fifth page? Do they pace or prowl or twirl their hair or do anything else multiple times through the story? Don’t cut all of this – it helps us understand and picture the character. But again, check that these actions are used where necessary, not just as a matter of course.
In a similar vein, look out for favourite words that keep appearing in your writing, but don’t necessarily add a lot. ‘Just’ is one that needs watching. So are ‘almost’, ‘really’ and ‘said’ (you don’t have to tag every piece of dialogue in the story). We all have favourite phrases and words that creep into our writing. If you can’t identify them, give ten pages of your writing to someone else and see if they can pick the ones you sprinkle through your work. Then make a list, put it beside your computer and do a search. See if you can eradicate some of them.
Look out for long descriptions. This varies depending on the style of story you’re telling, but if you’re given to pages of description in great detail, take time to ask yourself what that achieves. Can you achieve the same effect and yet crop some of it? The same goes for unnecessary dialogue. If your characters are talking that’s a good thing, but not if they’re talking about the weather or what time the bus goes, or agreeing to do something solely because you need to set up the next scene. Unless that dialogue also moves the story forward it’s likely you can prune it. Don’t forget, as an author you can focus on writing the ‘good bits’. You don’t have to show the characters planning in huge detail why and how they’ll get to the place you want them in the next action scene. You can simply cut and then begin a new scene with them where you want them, with minimal detail on how they arrived there.
Seek out repetition. Not just words you’ve already used but also ideas or issues that drive the characters’ thinking or dialogue. Usually it’s only necessary to tell readers something once and they will remember it. If you’re unsure, twice should suffice. If your character is trawling over the same ground again and again, that’s a perfect place to prune your story and you will improve the pace too.
Consider the number of secondary characters you need. This applies particularly to shorter stories. You may be able to convey what you need without naming and describing every secondary character. You may even achieve the effect you want by reducing the number of characters, perhaps having one person perform a function originally done by two.
When it comes to the mechanics of cutting, you can look for chapters that are particularly long and target those with the aim of reducing each by a page or two. Or you could start with chapters that run over onto a new page by just a few lines, or overly long paragraphs. Cutting doesn’t necessarily mean losing huge slabs of the book. It may be a matter of losing just a word here and there on every page.
First published on the Pink Heart Society Website