The subject’s come up recently in conversations I’ve had with other writers. For a first novel, how do you get it polished down to the acceptable word count bracket for your genre? All genres are different. And say you’ve already polished up the plot and the story’s good without making anymore huge changes. What are some of the subtle, little ways to knock down your word count?
First off, know what your word count is. There is no one supreme source on this one, unfortunately. Different agents and editors have different expectations, but on whole, all of these preferences tend to run closely to each other. Where can you find out your genre’s word count? Agent and editor websites/blogs, in online writing forums, in publisher guidelines, and even in workshops or conferences. There’s no excuse for not tracking your word count down if you really want to know.
So let’s say, hypothetically, you have written a fantasy novel that clocks in at about 130,000 words. The usual brackets for fantasy run between 100,000-120,000 words (you’ll find variations depending on the age group you write for and the type of fantasy novel.) First novels are encouraged to be down toward the lower end of that bracket since the authors are unproven as a money maker for publishers. That and, well, the bigger the book, the costlier it is to print. Anyhow…so you decide you need to trim about 10,000-20,000 words out of your manuscript.
- Look for unnecessary words. Switching out a bunch of adverbs and adjectives for a few really descriptive nouns and verbs is one way. Watch out for gerunds and passive verbs (forms of to be, was, would, could, should, etc.) You can usually swap these for stronger verbs too and take up less word real estate.
- Repetition. Anyplace where you might share information more than is necessary is up for the delete button.
- Watch for places where you use too many words. For example:
And so the handsome crossing guard lifted his hand, his stop sign gleaming in the soft, golden hues of the afternoon sun, and stepped out onto the even lines of the crosswalk with all the elementary children clustered around him for protection.
The crossing guard stopped traffic and escorted the children to the other side.
- Info dumps are another great place to hone your trimming skills. Keep to the facts that contribute to the story. If you need to put in an explanation about how some mystical branch of magic works among sorcerers, don’t go on tangents as to the history, the backstory of your character, or all the ins and ends and rules of your magic system in one place. Keep only the bits that are necessary for that place and time in the story. If we need to learn more later on, add only what is needed.
- Backstory. Yes, it is needed at some point in most books. Like info dumps we have a tendency to give out too much all at once. And not all backstory details are vital to the plot or your character’s growth. Keep the details that are vital and trim the rest.
- Dialogue. Comb through your characters’ conversations. Most of the time, you won’t need pleasantries or even lengthy farewells, or even the entire conversation. Stick to what moves the story along or affects your characters.
These are the ones that I thought of this week. Do you know of others I can pass on to my writer friends? Please share in the comments.
A lot of times you will find that going through your manuscript and deleting a word or two here and there, maybe a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph adds up. You don’t have to necessarily sacrifice huge swaths of your story to meet your word count goals.