Editing Tips #8 – Cutting Word Count

Editing Tips #8 – Cutting Word Count

You’ve completed a draft of your manuscript, but your editor wants you to cut 10,000 words. Or you are hoping to get your mystery novel published, but its word count is veering into the territory of epic fantasy. How can you cut your manuscript’s word count?

1. Prune the word “that.” Sometimes, the word that helps focus a reader’s attention on what’s important in a sentence. But much of the time, it’s unnecessary. Any time the meaning of your sentence is just as clear without the word that as it is with it, get rid of it. Its taking up precious word count.
• “I thought that you were going to the park.” vs. “I thought you were going to the park.”

2. Cut redundant words. Some expressions can be replaced with more economical constructions.
• “Advance warning” vs. “Warning” (All warning is in advance, so the word advance is unnecessary”
• “Add an additional” vs. “Add”
• “All of” vs. “All”
• “Added bonus” vs. “Bonus” (Bonuses are, by definition, added)
• “Absolutely essential” vs. “Essential” (Essential is already superlative)
• “Small/large in size” vs. “Small/large”
• “True facts” vs. “Facts”
• “Past history” vs. “History”
• “Evolve over time” vs. “Evolve” (All evolution takes place over time)
• “Basic fundamentals” vs. “Fundamentals/Basics” (All basics = fundamental; all fundamentals = basics)
• “Consensus of opinion” vs. “Consensus”
• “Cut out” vs. “Cut”

3. Cut redundant adverbs. While you should make a point of cutting out most adverbs, sometimes they’re useful. But they aren’t useful if the adverb repeats a meaning inherent in the verb.
• Shouted loudly
• Raced hurriedly
• Whispered softly
• Charged recklessly

4. Cut redundant prepositions
• “Meet with” vs. Meet
• “Sold off” vs. “Sold”
• “Met up” vs. “Met”
• “This time around” vs. “This time”

5. Delete unnecessary instances of “the.”
• “Your success in football depends on putting in the time and the effort.” vs. “Your success in football depends on putting in time and effort.”

6. Reduce your use of adverbs and adjectives. While adjectives and adverbs can be useful, they often weaken the nouns and verbs they’re attached to. While editing your work, ask yourself if there is a more specific noun or verb that gets your point across without the need for embellishment. Alternatively, does the sentence mean what you want it to without the need for the adjectives and adverbs?
• “The complete effect of the treatment became abundantly obvious after four whole days.” vs. “The effect of the treatment became obvious after four days.”

7. Convert passive to active voice. There are times when passive voice is useful, such as when you want to focus on the target of an action rather than the person who committed the action, but most of the time, active voice is better. It makes it clear who is doing what action, and it usually uses fewer words.
• “The sermon was delivered by the priest.” vs. “The priest delivered the sermon.”

8. Trim unnecessary transitions. Writing teachers often instruct students to use transitions to bridge paragraphs. But much of the time, these aren’t adding any meaning. Some of the transitional words and phrases that can usually be cut include:
• Likewise, on the flip side, similarly, indeed, then, furthermore, in the same vein.

9. Cut the word “very.” Unless you’re writing dialogue, the word “very” is almost never necessary. Use an alternative word or construction that indicates degree or severity.
• “It’s very important that we win this game!” vs. “We must win this game!”

10. Feel free to change sentence structure. Some sentences use a conjunction like “and” to link two independent clauses. But you could just use a period and start a new sentence.
• “Laura visited the park, and then Bob bought ice cream.” vs. “Laura visited the park. Bob bought ice cream.”

11. Remove unnecessary dialogue tags. A lot of writers feel like they must use a tag after each line of dialogue. But there are many instances when you can remove these.
• If it’s clear who is speaking because there are only two speakers, you can drop many of your tags. Use enough so people don’t get lost, but it doesn’t have to be every time.
• If you have action committed by the speaker, either before or after the dialogue, you can often leave out the tag.
• If the speaker says the name of the other speaker in the dialogue, you can cut the tag. Use this sparingly or your dialogue will feel forced.
• You can also leave out the tag by having clear and deliberate patterns of speech. If we can tell who is speaking based on what they said and how they said it, we don’t need a tag.

12. Use contractions and compound verbs. This is controversial, and it may not fly in formal writing, but it in informal writing, you can use contractions and compound verbs to reduce word count.
• Has not/Hasn’t
• Would have/Would’ve
• You have/You’ve
• We will/We’ll

13. Use plural nouns instead of singular. When you can achieve the same meaning with a plural sentence construction, consider using it to cut down on word count.
• Their vs. his or her
• People vs. A Person
• They vs. Bob and Ron

14. Modulate time expressions. Unless it’s crucial that we know it’s “very nearly noon” or “eleven o’clock in the morning” or “half past three,” use a phrase that conveys the same idea in fewer words.
• “It was very nearly noon when she woke up.” vs. “She woke at noon.”
• “The bell rang at eleven o’clock in the morning.” vs. “The bell rang at eleven.”
• “They finished school at half past three.” vs. “They finished school at three-thirty.”

Please note that even these tips must be used with discretion. They are advice, not rules.

What are your tips for cutting word count?

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