When I finished the first draft of my first novel (women’s fiction), it was 135,000 words.
For those of you not familiar with the genre, women’s fiction should fall between 70k – 100k, and even 100k is a stretch. That’s probably fair to say about most genres, unless you’re writing a Tolkien-style fantasy epic.
I edited that draft to death, even printed it out and attacked it with a red pen. Without changing much of the plot, the next draft came in at 88k.
Math, anyone? That’s 47,000 WORDS, cut. I could’ve been two-thirds of the way through writing another book, typing out that many extra words. ‘How Not to Overwrite’ is another topic for another blog post. Here, I’m talking to those who have already overwritten. Maybe you’re staring at a 135,000-word book, wondering how on earth you can ask a beta reader to tackle something that long.
The answer is, don’t. Not yet. First, let’s cut the fluff, trim the fat, and tighten that prose. Here are some sure-fire ways, not only to cut extra words but improve the quality of the writing.
1. Cut or Prune Action Beats
An action beat shows the character doing something, interspersed between lines of dialogue.
“I want to go, too,” she said, grabbing her bag from the chair and fishing for her car keys.
Do we really need to know she grabbed her bag and fished for her keys? If we cut some of that:
“I want to go, too,” she said, grabbing her bag.
19 words down to 10.
Sometimes you don’t need an action beat at all, particularly when it pertains to facial expressions. The dialogue gives a clue to how the character is feeling. For example:
“I’m so excited!” she said, smiling.
We don’t need to know she’s smiling. We can guess that from what she’s just said.
Examine your action beats. Cut some, or at least prune them down to one action, and you’ll easily cut a few thousand words from your draft.
2. Cut Unnecessary Words
Check your work for little words that dilute your prose. Some of the biggest culprits: JUST, THAT, SO, VERY, REALLY. You can search your manuscript for each of these and determine if it should stay or go.
That is a major one. Example:
“I heard that he’s going bankrupt,” she said.
Most of the time, you don’t need it.
“I heard he’s going bankrupt,” she said.
Might seem small, but if you’ve added an unnecessary that about 1,000 times, that’s an easy thousand words to cut without even removing unnecessary sentences, let alone changing the plot.
3. Cut Filter Words
Filter words draw us as readers further away from the narrative. They remind us that there’s a narrator telling us a story, rather than us experiencing the story with the character.
Some examples: saw, watched, noticed, looked, heard, knew, remembered, wondered, decided, thought, felt, seemed, spotted, realized (and their present tense versions).
I saw the car speed toward me. I decided to jump out of the way.
Cut I saw and I decided out, and you get:
The car sped toward me. I jumped out of the way.
Not the most brilliantly-written examples, but you get the gist. Sometimes writers use these phrases to distance the reader on purpose, or the phrase makes the most sense in the context of the scene, but in general, filter words weaken your prose. Cut most of them. It’ll bring the reader closer to the action.
4. Watch Overused Phrases
Check out this list of common phrases/action beats/clues to emotions:
- eyes narrowed
- locked eyes
- brows furrowed, eyebrows rose
- breath caught, breathed in, took a breath, breathing, sucked in a breath
- hands/fingers trembled
- heart skipped a beat
- throat closed
A lot of writers might use these as placeholders in a first draft. It’s ok if they’re in the final draft, too, but keep an eye on how often you use them. Too much of these, and your prose starts to feel a little meh. They’re easy to write, but if these are all you use, it’s lazy writing. Find other ways to express how a character is feeling. Give us internal thoughts instead of just physical reactions.
A Few Extra Tips
5. Split long sentences in two. Much easier to read.
6. Swap the verb “to be” with stronger verbs. “The cafe’s brownies are delicious” is weaker than “The cafe serves delicious brownies.”
7. Cut excessive use of “ing” verbs. Change “He goes running three times a week” to “He runs three times a week.”
Writing well is hard. It takes practice and a lot of rewriting. But if you can ingest these little tricks until they become second nature, maybe your next first draft will be a little closer to the finished product.