I’ve edited manuscripts with word counts well over 100,000. A word count this high isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but publishers like books under 100k mostly due to publishing costs. To an agent or publisher, a high word count can imply an author doesn’t know how to edit themselves to be concise.
Trimming the fat doesn’t mean you should cut anything essential. It means carving the extra off so your story can be easily devoured.
I’ve taken a 120k manuscript and made it 90k. It sounds like a lot, but it contained repetitive information, long blocks of backstory and setting descriptions, and extra words.
Repeating information can work to hammer a point, but if the narrative restates the same details, the reader can feel they aren’t trusted to remember or come to their own conclusions. If repetition of a message is important, it’s best to approach the idea from different angles and show a few sides to the argument or people’s opinions on a topic.
Maybe a character is adamant drug addiction was always the user’s fault and leaves no room for any other reasons someone could become addicted. That’s great, if it’s one or a small group of people’s opinions, but if that’s every character’s opinion, and they basically say the same thing, using similar phrasing it won’t work. What if a doctor prescribed medication to a patient with chronic pain, not knowing it was addictive when they signed the prescription?
It’s better to have dissenting opinions. Even one character with a different viewpoint can make an argument stronger and add conflict and depth to a story. Consider using different characters to approach an issue from multiple perspectives, instead reiterating similar ideas.
Since you know your characters so well and create backstories for each character, it’s tempting to reveal their history all at once or tell the reader about every character.
We can default to writing paragraphs about a character’s job, where they live, how they got to be where they are in life, maybe even their childhood, but this will slow the story down feel like an interruption in the story. Showing how their earlier experiences shaped who they are through actions, thoughts, and dialogue is best, and later reveal why holds the reader in suspense. Flashbacks work very well for revealing a lot in a short and entertaining way.
Sometimes there are superfluous backstories. It’s not necessary to tell the reader about characters who only appear once or twice in the manuscript. If the reader doesn’t need to remember their backstory, cut them.
While readers of some genres, like sci-fi and high fantasy, expect rich setting descriptions, they don’t expect it in all genres or stories set in modern times. We all know what a garage looks like, so only pointing out what is different from the usual or specific items that will come into play later works best.
So, instead of large blocks of description, give the reader a few cues and let their minds fill in the details. Sprinkling elements of the character’s surroundings throughout the scene and using their actions and dialogue adds richness and creates a more immersive story.
Cutting extra words makes the narrative concise and easier to digest. Verbs like ‘started’ and ‘began,’ should be used sparingly. While these words have a place, like a character starts to run, but they are interrupted, most times they are just extra. Choose stronger verbs when actions continue.
Choosing specific verbs decreases the need for -ly adverbs. Using ‘raced,’ or ‘dashed,’ creates variety and distinctive action as opposed to ‘ran quickly.’ In this case, ran is good enough as the verb chosen implies the character did it quickly.
Another word to cut is ‘that.’ It also has a place, and we use it often, but I’ve worked on a manuscript where ‘that’ appeared, get this, 2,123 times. By removing only the unnecessary ones, I reduced the word count by 1,667 words!
You can get your messages across clearly, while making your stories immersive and easy to read, by trimming the fat.
When self-editing, look for everything that is extra. If it is a scene that doesn’t move the story forward or add character depth, get rid of it. If it is ‘how’s the weather’ type of dialogue that doesn’t serve a purpose, get rid of it. Your readers, your editors, agents, and publishers will appreciate it!
About the Author
Kristin Noland is an internationally renowned professional editor, specializing in developmental, line, and copy editing of speculative fiction.
She’s edited over sixty manuscripts, including two bestsellers. Many of her clients are authors who self-publish or submit to agents and publishers. Kristin is a contracted editor for Brooke Warner Coaching, LLC., She Writes Press, Greenleaf Book Group, as well as the editorial service companies—Book Butchers and The Literary Consultancy. At Literary Wanderlust, a traditional publisher, she held the position of assistant editor.
To learn more about Kristin, visit https://www.nolandediting.com.