One of the most frustrating things as a writer of any kind is having a word limit. On one hand, learning to be concise is a useful and, indeed, necessary skill; on the other, I want to write what I’m writing in however many words it needs! Magazines and websites are full of word counts for their pieces, as are applications for many writing residencies and retreats. While publishers may not have a strict word count for books, there are general guidelines depending on genre—most YA novels are 50-70k, for instance.
If you find yourself having to cut lots of words, even in the thousands, don’t panic! There are lots of ways to trim words without having to rewrite whole portions of your work. Here are some tried-and-true methods I use all the time. I should note that these are best done after you’ve revised your work; it makes no sense to try to cut down a first draft! With the exception of number one, try these when you’re getting ready to send your work out into the world. (One thing to note: some of these may end up increasing your words in that particular scene, but they’ll be stronger words, which means you can go back and get rid of weaker ones!)
1. Does each scene earn its keep?
This is one of the easiest ways to cut words, and it can happen in early drafts! It sounds obvious, but it’s really hard to decide whether or not to axe a whole scene you’ve spent time and energy on. Doing so, though, will not only reduce your word count (duh), it’ll make your overall writing stronger. Ask yourself these questions for each scene: How does this further the plot? How does this further my understanding of the character(s)? Do we learn something different about them, the world, or the story in this scene? This doesn’t mean that every scene needs to be profound to earn its keep, but even quiet scenes can move the story along in some meaningful way.
The old adage “show, don’t tell” can be helpful for some people, but it’s one of my least favorites—because some things you can tell. For example, you can summarize irrelevant events of a character’s day that do not impact the overall plot but are important to why that character is in a certain mood at the end of the day, which might impact their interactions with other characters, leading to certain conflicts—and so on.
Here’s an example: In my middle grade, my main character loses her memories of her mission, and her animal guide spends several scenes trying to make her remember. Those scenes got repetitive, in that each time, she still didn’t remember any more than before. I trimmed these down by summarizing, in a few lines, that it had happened a few more times. It was hard to do, because I enjoyed the banter between these characters and I wanted to show the helplessness of the task, but the repetition slowed down the plot instead of increasing tension. It was more important for the pacing to be tighter than it was trying to nail a feeling.
Make sure each of your scenes earn their keep! If not, snip them into another document (always keep them! You may end up salvaging even a line or two from it) and move on.
(By the way, an extreme version of this is to see if every sentence earns its keep. If you’re really pressed for space, it’s worth trying.)
2. Check for your writer fallbacks.
A lot of us rely on shorthand while we’re drafting, using key repeated words/phrases throughout the manuscript that have no business being there. Go back through and chop those out. For example, I used to write “she licked her lips” a lot to break up dialogue, but how often do lip licking/biting, shrugging, sighing, or the like actually happen in dialogue? Most of the times, these sort of habits take up space without contributing anything.
3. Replace filler words with strong verbs. In the same vein, remove “just,” “that,” and “very.”
This is one a professor pointed out in workshop in my first semester last year. Filler words are anything from meaningless words that take up space without contributing to words that filter the experience you’re describing. I used to use “just” and “that” especially in most paragraphs. Sometimes, they provide a rhythm to the sentence, but mostly, they take up space. “I remember that we used to play” becomes “I remember we used to play”—with no one the wiser. Similarly, words like “felt” don’t add anything. What’s stronger, “she felt scared” or “cold sweat trickled down her back”? (Sure, one is longer, but those words mean something. But again, remember that “show, don’t tell” isn’t always useful in moments like this!)
This infographic has great examples of other words to remove, too!
4. In a dialogue with only two characters, take out the “character said.” Use that space instead to describe body language, nonverbal cues, and setting.
Lately, I’ve noticed how many times I tend to use “said” in a dialogue between two people. Sometimes you need to give dialog tags to indicate a tone or else break up the back and forth, but when there are only two people talking, how often do those need to happen? Go back through and see whether you need the tags as often as you have them. (A note: You may end up increasing your word count if you do replace those words with other descriptions. Ultimately, I think that’s okay if those words make the scene stronger.)
In the same vein, you can take out words like “pause.” Instead, if you give us some setting description (or the like), it naturally breaks up the dialogue—thus, inserting a pause!
5. Look for repeated words in a short space.
I don’t mean accidental words that somehow appeared in your sentence. I mean using certain words several times within the same paragraph. When I was rereading this article, I saw how many times I used “trim” in the introduction. Often, repeated words can go entirely.
6. Very rarely do things happen “suddenly.” Remove! On the other hand, use an adverb in place of a lengthy and unnecessary description.
Maybe this is just a pet peeve of mine, but if you’re using “suddenly” a lot in your work, that’s something you can remove in almost every instance. Go back and see whether something is really “sudden” after all.
Adverbs are an interesting and decisive part of speech. Stephen King famously says to cut them out, and usually, I agree. I have a habit of going to the extreme on this, though. For example, I tend to remove adverbs that describe how someone is talking for a lengthier descriptor, but the truth of the matter is, adverbs work just fine! There’s no need for me to say “her voice was quiet” instead of “she said quietly.” Even removing one word can add up if you are continually replacing undescriptive phrases with adverbs.
7. Reword lengthy phrases.
I am an extremely verbose writer. If you have this problem, it is integral that you go back over your sentences—each sentence—and see whether you can rephrase things to lower your word count.
The paragraph in #7 is a first draft; I kept it as a case in point. Take a look at how I could have trimmed it:
Adverbs are an interesting and decisive part of speech. Stephen King famously says to cut them out, and usually, I agree, but I tend to be extreme about it.
I have a habit of going to the extreme on this, though. For example, rather than saying “she said quietly,” I’ll write, “Her voice was quiet.” I tend to remove adverbs that describe how someone is talking for a lengthier descriptor, but the truth of the matter is, adverbs work just fine! There’s no need for that. for me to say “her voice was quiet” instead of “she said quietly.” Even removing One word may not seem like much, but it can add up if you are continually replacing adverbs with phrases.
Original word count: 92
New word count: 60
Let’s be real, I could probably trim down this article if I went back and did a similar method!
8. Punctuation is your friend!
One of the most useful and underrated tools a writer can use is punctuation. Semicolons, colons, commas, and em-dashes all provide meaning without adding words. Semicolons connect two sentences without a conjunction, commas can replace a “that” rhythmically, and em-dashes are the best punctuation around (don’t @ me). Sometimes, a well-placed comma is really all you need.
9. Read your work aloud (or use a text-to-speech reader).
This is actually a fantastic method to go through any piece of writing. If you can, print the page (ideally in a font you don’t usually use; it doesn’t have to be fancy, just something your eyes aren’t used to). Whether you read the work aloud and catch things, have someone else read the work as you follow along, or use a text-to-speech reader (there are free versions online), you absolutely will be able to cut things. In fact, you’ll not only delete unnecessary words and typos but find places where the language is clunky, allowing you to rewrite with fewer words.
10. Do revisions by hand and then type the whole thing up from scratch.
While this seems excessive, I’ve found it’s absolutely the best method for cutting out extraneous words and rephasing things. If possible, print out your text, do your revisions, and retype every word from scratch. If you can’t print out the text, change the font of your original document and then retype it in a new one. It is incredibly time-consuming, but I promise the results are worth it. You’ll chop full paragraphs and rephrase so much in the process that it’ll be like another revision itself!
What are some methods you use to cut down on your word count? Let us know!
A former scientist and Chicago native, Naseem Jamnia is currently a fiction MFA student at the University of Nevada, Reno. They’re the coauthor of Positive Interactions with At-Risk Children (Routledge 2019), the 2018 Bitch Media Fellow in Technology, and a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow; their work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Cosmopolitan, and other venues. You can find out more about them and their work at www.naseemwrites.com