How to Cut Your Word Count

Blog | Editing | Fiction How-to | Nonfiction How-to

by Sabine Berlin

The dreaded word cut! We’ve all been there and are with you in spirit!

For starters, if you need to know the standard, accepted word counts of your genre, here’s a great article on the topic (pretty critical to getting picked up in traditional publishing). But if you already know you need to kill some darlings and cut some words, we have some tips for you.

Often, we need an outside perspective to tell us what’s most critical to the reader, but there are also some basic word-economy strategies and at-a-glance assessments we can employ to make things more concise and compelling.

Tools for Cutting

1. For starters, look for “filler” words—unneeded dialogue tags, adverbs, adjectives, and instances of that. The list goes on. Google “filler words in writing” for more ideas. Use contractions when you can.

2. Another idea is to have someone else read it and mark anytime they start drifting or not caring about what’s happening.

3. And watch for subplots taking over your story. It’s okay to have secondary characters we love, but we need to remember they are secondary; and when it comes to word economy, their story should not be as important as the MC’s—if it is, maybe they need their own book.

4. Divide it up. A three-act book should be divided into three sections with lengths of about one-fourth, one-half, one-fourth. If your middle portion takes up two-thirds of the book, you may need to perform a bit of surgery there.

5. Read your story sentence for sentence and make sure every word counts. Keep in active voice as much as possible: “I was swimming for my life” versus “I swam for my life.” You’d be surprised how many words you can cut one word at a time.

For more ideas on trimming, check out these other articles on our blog:

The last thing we want is to lose readers because our prose is tedious (or to get an automatic rejection because we crossed standard industry word counts)! Hopefully the above ideas will help you tighten and strengthen your prose—to where your audience doesn’t even realize they’re reading and is totally engaged with your plot and characters.

Happy cutting! (Pro tip: get some chocolate.)

Awesome resources are at your fingertips.

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