I’m looking at you, over-writers. I see you, weeping over your 120k, 130k babies wondering how you’ll ever cut off even a thousand words, much less enough to fit into the 85k-100k that’s the industry standard for those that are debuting and trying to query.
It’s hard, believe me, I know.
Hello, I’m Celeste Harte, and I too, am an over-writer.
But fear not! You can cut down on the words and trim things down enough to face the querying world without the fear that they won’t accept your massive manuscript for being too long, and I’m going to share with you the ways I’ve learned how to do it. But brace yourself, it may be a little painful, but it might also be what you need to hear.
Write a summary of each chapter
This may seem like a tedious step, but believe me, it helps. It doesn’t have to be a long description, either. But on Scrivener, you have the ability to write a small summary for each chapter if you chose to, but you can also do this in many ways even if you don’t have scrivener (bear with me, I’m going to explain why you should do this in a moment):
- Create a document with a list of chapter numbers, the chapter names (if you use them), and the summaries.
- Get index cards and do the same thing, chapter number and name at the top, summary just below it.
- Write it into a notebook you can keep beside you as you make edits, same format, chapter number/name, and summary.
I would recommend writing a summary of no more than a few sentences. Just enough so you can get quick idea of what’s going on in the chapter at a glance. If you use more than one POV throughout the story, now would also be a good time to also put their name at the top of each chapter as well (it will stand out more if you do it in another color, and give each character/POV their own color). And yes, on every chapter. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
(This step is easier on Scrivener. All you have to do is go into the cork board mode and give summaries to all of the chapters. Then create custom labels with your characters names on them and with different colors each. After that, just go through each chapter and label them accordingly)
Now, let me explain why this step is so crucial. You know what your main plot is. Read through the summaries of all the chapters and make sure that they’re all essential to that plot. If they’re not essential to the plot, the only other acceptable diversions should be character development-related, but even then, I would advise making sure that they get back to the point soon.
And if you’re seeing a lot of chapters veering towards sub-plots or things that are mainly about the characters, you might want to consider leading those chapters towards the chopping block. Don’t do it yet, just keep those distraction chapters in mind. Maybe even mark them so you remember which ones stood out to you.
Also, if you’re writing multiple POVs, this is also a good time to take a step back see how many times other heads are butting into the story, analyze if it’s happening a little too often, or not enough. Just something to keep in mind, as well.
Save a copy of your doc. And then cut without mercy
Okay, over-writers. I know this is hard. But that’s why we saved a copy. This copy will actually come in handy later, so don’t weep too hard, we’ll come back to it every now and then.
But. We still have to cut things away. At this point, since we have the original all safe and sound, it’s better to cut more than less. So don’t start by cutting a couple sentences, cut entire scenes. Even chapters. Yes, I’m saying cut whole chapters. Don’t worry about making it all make sense together, we’ll do that later. But you can mark wherever you cut with with a sign so you can remember to get back to it and make it all make sense, like this:
(feels a little like a serial killer leaving their signature, doesn’t it?)
You don’t want these signs to be too many words, because you want to be able to keep track of how many words your manuscript has total.
As you cut, this is where you should be revisiting those chapters you marked with scenes/entire chapters of unnecessary parts. Even if it’s a heart-warming scene of a boy re-uniting with his father after 30 years… if it’s a scene going on on the side-lines and has nothing to do with the story, do you really need it? Really?
Now, there will even be parts you think you need. So these are the questions you can ask yourself as a checklist to help yourself stay honest to what’s actually needed.
Without this scene, would the main plot stay the same? If so, then cut.
Does this scene repeat a point I’ve already made earlier in the story? (for example, if you have a scene to demonstrate that the character is a shopaholic by having a shopping spree, is a second shopping spree really necessary? Or if your characters have had a long conversation about a certain subject before, is it really necessary for the characters to have another, slightly different one in another scene?) If so, cut it.
Does this scene further develop the character(s), world, or plot? If not, then cut.
Again, don’t worry about cutting too much. If you’re doubting a scene or chapter for any reason, just cut it. That’s what we saved the extra document for, so you can add it back if you have to. But the more you cut, the better, because when you start making all the parts make sense later, you’re going to add more words as you mend things togther, so you’ll need the leeway. And some scenes may come back! Only smaller, and more to the point.
But at this stage, just clip away.
Glue scenes together
After all the cutting is done, you’ll have to start from the beginning of the manuscript and start reading through until you reach the edited parts. At this point you’ll have to make each call wisely. If the story stays the same and you don’t need what you cut out, then just make that part make sense so the transition is smooth. If you decide some part of what you cut is important, then scrutinize what you want to keep, at it’s core, and try to add it back with as few words as possible. I find it’s easier to write it back in smaller than it is to try paste the scene back and clip things away. Rewriting it by hand allows you to reword things so they’re shorter, and as I said, scrutinize the scene you’ve cut and make sure you’re only adding back the essence of what you want.
Also, keep in mind that while your writing is your art, you also want it to eventually be your business. You have the original manuscript, which you can keep near and dear to your heart with all of the things you loved about it. But if you need to trim some sub-plots you’re clutching onto, remember that you have a version that’s just for you. And maybe to make yourself easier for agents to approach for your very first time… cut it out.
And just remember, once you’re published, you’ll have more leeway to write longer stories! You’ll be able to keep your subplot babies more often! But for your first time, it’s a risk for you and your manuscript to be too long for readers that don’t know you to be willing to engage with you for that long.
Take one for the team, and try to keep out as many scenes as you can as you go back and forth through your newer version and your older version. And for scenes that are actually important, add them back smaller, or gloss over the details so you can get back to the point quicker.
This is the hardest part. But sometimes, in order to save on words, you may have to eliminate characters. It’s gut-wrenching, but if you can get rid of any side character, cameo, or even friends of your main character, you can get rid of a lot of words related to them. That’s dialogue, descriptions, actions, everything.
Like before, you should ask yourself these questions.
Would the plot stay the same without this character? If so, consider cutting.
Is this character essential to the main character in some developmental way? If not, consider cutting.
Is this character redundant? Is there another character with a similar role already? Or can an existing character take on this character’s role? If so, consider cutting.
The characters most likely to be near the chopping block are groups of friends (the members of the group may be redundant, or have too much dialogue if they’re a character that doesn’t matter to the story much/doesn’t come up more than once or twice), friends of friends (I know your side characters are people too, but we really don’t need to know the MC’s best friend’s best friend’s cousin), family members (immediate family may be necessary, but we don’t need to know everyone that shows up to the family reunions), and cameos that have too much dialogue/an unnecessary side-plot. Sometimes, the taxi driver can just drive in silence.
Line edit mode
After you’ve went over your whole manuscript, at this point, your manuscript should already be thousands of words smaller. That’s the great part about hacking away those huge scenes and chapters! When you add words back to smooth things over, you’re replacing literally 2-3k for each scene with fill-ins that may end up being 200-1k. That’s a huge improvement! Imagine this, if you were able to cut out 8 big scenes that were each 2k, that’s 16k gone right there. You may even be at your goal at this point, or at least near it.
Now all that’s left is to go line by line and re-examine your word choices. This is the point where you should be looking out for filler words like “that”, “was”, “had”, etc. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be there, but these are words that are easy to reiterate too many times by accident, so clean those out. Also look out for phrases that have shorter replacements. For instance:
Jacob’s boss gave him a choice, so he took a long time to consider his options.
Jacob’s boss gave him a choice, so he contemplated his options.
Just try to go through your word choice and try to minimize your words wherever possible. But keep your style and flow in mind! You don’t have to be as harsh at this stage, you’ve already done the heart-wrenching part.
However, this should also be the stage where you should scrutinize descriptions and dialogue, which are two things that take up a lot of space. Try to minimize lots of words into less words that illustrate the same thing for descriptions and actions (the thesaurus will be your best friend here), and try to take out bits of conversation that aren’t relevant to the subject they’re talking about. Hi’s, bye’s, and how are you doing’s, can be cut. Keep only what’s necessary.
Also clean up any typos you notice, any parts of the patch-up jobs you had to do that’s a little iffy, or whatever else. You’re just tidying up at this point.
Look at how far you’ve come
Take a look at that manuscript you started with, and look at what a difference you’ve made to it. I think you’ll start to see it in a new light now that it’s more direct and to the point. The plot should be tidier and easier to explain after you’ve striped it down to the bare bones and taken a nice hard look at it.
If you’ve made a lot of changes, it might be a good idea to write out those chapter summaries again, and see how much more concise the plot is now, without getting distracted by side stuff.
And if you had to cut characters, you may miss them, but I think you’ll agree that if they had to be cut, it needed to be done. And the story will feel so much more focused on what you started this for.
And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving both versions of your book baby. It’s still the same story. It’s still whatever moved you enough to write that thing, no matter how many words you had to write to get it out. And you may have had to take one for the team to slim it down to meet current industry standards, but you wouldn’t be here without both versions of the story.
Just one is easier to debut with, is all 😂.