Sunday, January 18, 2015

How and why to cut words from your manuscript

I’ve just cut 2,800 words off my current work-in-progress, a middle grade novel with a tentative publication date in 2016. (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins, working title: Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded.) My goal was to cut 3,000, so I nearly made it. 

When I first taught myself to cut words, I did it mainly to get my manuscripts down to industry standard for middle grade. (For fantasy, under 75,000 words; for other genres, under 65,000.) But I learned so much else from the process of word-cutting that I now use it to identify other issues. 

Cutting words is a good idea even if you’re not over wordcount, because it helps make your manuscript leaner, cleaner, and more like the stuff that gets published.

Here’s the procedure. 

  1. Decide how many words you want to cut.
  2. Print your manuscript.
  3. Divide the number of words you want to cut by the number of pages you’ve printed. In this case there were 202 pages, so my goal was to cut 15 words a page.
  4. Take a pen and try to hunt out the target number of words to delete on every single page. Write your score at the bottom of each page.

Keeping score is important, because it gives you an incentive to keep hunting out that one little extra word you can do away with it. (You probably won’t meet your goal on every page, so you’ll need to exceed it on some pages.)

Here are some of the cuts I made, and why I made them. Underlined words are words I added.

“We can’t buy dinner.”
“Why should you need to buy dinner?”

Deleting the unnecessary repetion cuts two words. Sometimes repetition serves a rhythmic purpose. This one doesn’t.

He waved them through toward a high arched hallway that opened beyond the office.

It doesn’t matter exactly where the hallway is, so those five extra words can go.
Changing “them through” to “toward” saves a word, but it also saves misunderstanding. He’s not waving them.

 With a sigh, she thought of Miss Ellicott.

As I made cuts, I discovered my protagonist was doing everything with a sigh. Sometimes she ended the sentence with a sigh, sometimes she began it with one. After this week’s cuts, only three sighs remain.

 The fact was it was a very big city.

“The fact was” over and over again in this draft! No longer.

She gestured broadly with her arm

Yeah, what else was she going to gesture with? I mean, the choices are fairly limited. There’s no need to say what she gestured with unless it was something really unusual. Someone else’s arm, for example.

There were pools of water here and there in hollows on the rock.

This is only a net reduction of one word, but it gets rid of the vague “here and there” and replaces it with something more specific.

It was pitch dark. She couldn’t see a thing.

Since the second sentence describes exactly what we would expect, it can go.

“So you’re spying on me, are you?” said Mrs. Walters, standing in front of stood before the fireplace, hands on hips.

This is one I did purely to reduce word count. I don’t think the changes I made in this sentence add anything stylistically. “Before” isn’t a better locative than “in front of”. It’s just shorter.

You can usually remove a dialogue tag (said X, X said, X asked, etc) if it’s immediately followed by an action. The point of dialogue tags is to identify the speaker. The action accomplishes this.

 Men and boys were everywhere, rolling barrels that rumbled along the docks, shouting and singing. They rolled barrels that rumbled along the the docks.

This one actually results in a net gain of one word. But I had to do it. As it was, the barrels, since they were already the subject of the verb “rumbled”,  appeared to be shouting and singing. While this would be interesting, it was not the image I wanted.

Besides the above examples, there were many whole sentences and even some paragraphs I removed simply because they described something that was already adequately described.

On my next round of cuts, which will probably follow my next revision and immediately precede submitting the manuscript to the publisher, I’m going to be looking for places where I’ve overexplained, not trusted the reader enough.

A round of cutting generally takes a week of full-time work.

Anyway, I thought the above might be interesting to some people.


  1. Wow! This is very interesting. I'm going to use your post with my 5th grade class today. We love Jinx!
    Clinton Elementary School

  2. Aw, thanks for your kind words! And hello, Ms. Rowell's 5th grade class! :-D

  3. This is so clever! I was having *so* much trouble getting my wordcount down from 83k. I'm probably going to do it all digitally, though. The thought of using more than 300 sheets of paper for just one project is not one I would like to dwell on.