Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Trimming the Manuscript Part 1: The Nitpicks Revision

Some books are epic doorstoppers. We see them all the time in libraries and bookstores. Some stories need all that girth to tell them, and many stories do not. The unpublished writer soon finds his/her biggest roadblock to publication is the formidable word count confession. Speculative Fiction writers get a little more leeway than other genres because of world-building (100,000-120,000 words usually), but even then, there are limits to most agents' patience when they're viewing your query letter. A word count of 200,000 is going to raise eyebrows, if you're a first-timer. So for the next little while, I'm going to devote a few blogposts to discussing ways to trim your manuscript to an acceptable length without sacrificing the story. As I've had to run this gauntlet myself, maybe what I've learned might help you. And if you have any relevant tips and tricks, please share in the comments.

Sometimes, all that is needed is a nitpick revision of the full manuscript. A nitpick revision is where you comb through, line by line, and look for small things to take out. A word or phrase here and there doesn't seem like much, but it really does add up and I've known writers who have cut thousands of words by this type of revision alone.

Things to look for:
1) Sentence rephrasing. Can you say the same thing in fewer words? Simplicity works best. It gets your message across with fewer "speed bumps" for the reader. Anywhere a reader might backtrack and re-read a sentence for clarity is a good place to rephrase and cut words.

2) Passive phrasing: He was going, She was walking, They were sleeping, etc. You can make a sentence active instead of passive and trim some unnecessary words by getting rid of the "was" and changing the action verb to an -ed instead of an -ing: He went. She walked. They slept.

Note: Not all versions of "was" or "-ing" should be cut from a manuscript, but that's a whole other discussion.

3) Places where someone "looks". Instead of telling us your protagonist looked down into the valley, cut to the chase and show us the valley. Show trumps tell in these cases, and can help you trim a lot of unnecessary words. We don't always need to read the action of looking at something. There are exceptions, of course. Try to use this kind of action sparingly.

4) Redundancy. Have you already described a motivation in Chpt. 3? Don't give us another explanation about it in Chpt. 5. The same thing with description or an event. It's rare that a reader needs a recap if your first explanation, description, or event did it's job. Adding to or changing something is entirely different.

5) Are you using hyphens to connect words? Some phrases are supposed to be connected and it technically cuts down your word count. Examples: nine-year-old, half-eaten, back-up.

6) Double adjectives or adverbs. Are they repetitive or too similar to each other? Cut one.

7) Adjectives and Adverbs. Do you need them? Can you use a stronger noun or verb instead? Example: "the tall building" becomes "the skyscraper" or "the castle". Keep in mind that just because a word is an adjective or adverb doesn't mean you have to cut it. Adjectives and adverbs are valid parts of speech and used wisely, enhance your prose. Make sure they are necessary.

8) Estimate how many words you need to cut per page to reach your word count goal and try to stick with it.
Example: Based on an average of 250 words p/page, to drop from 125,000 words (500 pgs.) to 100,000 words (400 pgs.), you'd need to slash 50 words p/page.

9) Keeping your pet words in mind (those you use repetitiously) do a word search and see how many you can chop out. Simple words such as: "that", "as", "and", "but", "just", "only", or short phrases.

10) Unnecessary action: "He sat down." The action of sitting implies the direction. Chop out the word "down". Look also for places where you've fallen into a play-by-play of simple action: "She woke up, rubbed her eyes, yawned, and sat up. Putting her feet over the side, she slid out onto the floor, stood, and stretched." Leave something to the reader's imagination. There's nothing extraordinary in these actions, so strike them out.

For further ideas on nitpick revising, I recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, especially the section on eliminating unnecessary words.

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