You spend all this time pouring words onto a page, cultivating the perfect descriptions and dialogue, explaining every detail of the story, leaving no corner of your world untouched. And then you look at your word count…
If you’re anything like me, you realize that the next several months is going to test your resolve, your eyesight, and the structural integrity of your coffee table. I can’t be the only person who gorilla-thumps nearby objects out of frustration, can I? After all, editing is difficult. You’re selectively tearing out pieces of a story you’ve created. It’s a mentally strenuous task with emotional weight behind it, and you’ll be doing it for months, at least.
If you’re familiar with my blog, you might recall that I recently turned down a publishing deal with a small press and went back to edit my manuscript yet again. I had “edited” before, and the fruits of those labors had cropped my 165,000-word-story down to 147,000. On this editing wave, my goal is to get below 120,000, preferably down to 110,000. I’m currently at 140,000 after editing the third chapter. Yes, I’ve cut 7000 words out of three (long) chapters.
I’m seeing things I couldn’t see before. I'm deleting entire paragraphs, huge chunks of dialogue. Condensing twelve lines down to two. Why am I able to do this now, when I wasn’t able to before?
The first time(s) I edited Sundering, I had taken a month off beforehand.
Now, it’s been six months since I had last worked on the story.
That distance allows me to see everything with greater clarity. I can be brutal with my edits because I’m not as close to the story as I used to be. Sure, I wish I could keep it all in. But I can’t. That word count doesn’t look good to agents, and I know I can tighten the story. And having that zoomed-out perspective allows me to distinguish the crucial from the unimportant.
So the first piece of advice I can give you is this: take more time off than you think you need. Work on other stuff. If you’re excited to edit, then wait. You’re still too into your own story.
This fresh-eyed approach has allowed me to cut almost a third of my words so far. That means a much smoother and faster reading experience and lower printing costs if I choose to self-publish. Below, I’ll discuss the two main strategies I use to Thanos my manuscript. If you haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos is a shockingly powerful villain who wipes out half the entire universe with a snap of his fingers. He’s pretty intense.
Here’s how you can do the same thing to your manuscript.
Two words: Cut and condense.
Basic premise: if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s got to go.
Some stuff just doesn’t need to be in the story. It’s cool, it’s funny, it’s entertaining, it provides depth to the characters or shows something about the setting… But it’s just not necessary. These kinds of things are the hardest to cut. It can be a line of dialogue, a paragraph of description, a page of heavy-handed exposition, or an entire scene or chapter. But if it doesn’t move the story forward or provide some sort of crucial development, it can be cut.
I had to cut a meeting/conversation between two character who become very close later in the series, because the meeting did nothing for the immediate story. I also had to cut an entire fight I wanted to write because there was no point to it. These hard decisions will earn you 2000-5000 words every time you make them, which can be a saving grace for pitching your manuscript.
Ask yourself “what’s the point of this scene?” If you don’t have a good reason, give it the chop. And remember, “but I love it,” and “it’s so cool,” are not good reasons.
If you’re really struggling with whether or not to cut something, make a copy of your WIP, cut it, and come back for a read much later. If it stays smooth, leave it out. If it feels awkward, put it back in and find something else to cut, or condense the material by cutting the fluff and paring it down to the essentials.
That’s the nature of strategy number two:
In my opinion, this is even more vital to editing than cutting, because no matter how much you cut, you’ll still be left with a story, and the pacing and delivery of that story need to be, in the words of Breaking Bad’s Tuco Salamanca…
There are very few sentences and paragraphs that can’t be expressed more concisely. My first drafts are full of redundant phrasing, and while the information therein is important, it doesn’t need to be stated more than once.
What’s redundant phrasing? It can be something as simple as “she shrugged her shoulders.” Well yeah, what else would she shrug? Her knees? Also in this category are things like “he nodded his head,” and “she blinked her eyes.” If that last one sounds excessively stupid, that’s because it is.
It can be something that’s already implied, like “he screamed in terror.” Well, if some scary shit is happening and the character is screaming, we can assume he’s terrified. Now, there are times when the “in terror” adds flavor, structure or rhythm to the sentence, I get it. Just be aware that you can take it out, and that the reader will still know that your character is having a bad time.
The redundancies can also be long and complex. Consider the following paragraph:
She got dressed, pulling her shirt over her shoulders and smoothing out her hair. It was always so frizzy. She crossed the room, grabbed the doorknob, and pushed it open, making sure to lock the door behind her with the key that she then stuffed into her pocket. Padding down the hall, she glanced at the pictures on her left side, the family she once had, and felt that crushing sadness once again. They were gone, and that would never change.
That paragraph almost put me to sleep writing it. Who the fuck cares that she got dressed, walked across the room, put the key back into her pocket, etc? This isn’t that third-grade experiment about teamwork where you had to direct your partner to make a PB&J sandwich using only verbal cues, and if you skipped a step like “open the peanut-butter jar” or “pick up the spoon,” your partner just stood there looking like an idiot who couldn’t figure out that to scoop the peanut butter, they had to first pick up the jar and open it, even though it was technically your own fault for not following directions and GODDAMNIT JEFF, WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GO AND MAKE ME LOOK BAD?
Let’s condense that above passage, removing all redundancy and implied actions.
She pulled her shirt over her shoulders and smoothed out her frizzy hair. As she exited the room, the door shut behind her with a haunting finality. She glanced at the pictures lining the hallway, the family she once had, and felt that crushing sadness once again. They were gone, and that would never change.
The first two sentences are condensed into one much shorter sentence. Hell, even that one can be cut, as it isn’t crucial unless you really want to let the reader know about the character’s frizzy hair. The second sentence is wholly unnecessary, so I just gutted it and added a small bit that adds some emotional weight instead of a mundane description of leaving the room. The important stuff is at the end, so that’s largely unchanged.
Now, that paragraph was purposefully written to be bad. So, let’s look at some examples from Sundering. In both cases, I thought these passages were good enough to make the “final cut,” before I realized my manuscript needed way more work.
Below is part of a conversation between two main characters. First is the long version, second is the condensed version. I’m pretty sure you’ll notice the difference.
Pre-Edit (365 words)
“I’m sorry,” Ryden mumbled, his bravado visibly deflated. “I didn’t mean to question what you’ve done for us. But I don’t understand why I don’t have a say in what my life is going to be.”
“Because that isn’t the nature of life. Life isn’t about self-serving choices and freedom of consequence, it’s about responsibility and duty. It’s about doing what’s right. Think of your future children. Do you want them to live? Remember, I lost four siblings in my youth.”
“Do you want them to be well provided for? To never know hunger or desperation?” Rylar asked.
“Do you want them to be protected from the criminals of the world? The thieves, the murderers, the rapists? They prey on those who cannot protect themselves.”
“Of course, I do.”
“Then your path is clear. Marrying the farmgirl will not give you those things. Becoming an artist will not give you those things. You would be voluntarily stepping down the ladder of power and influence after I clawed my way to the top to give you and your sister a chance to live a life of comfort,” Rylar said.
Ryden scoffed. “Why do you care so much about power and influence?”
“I have no desire to rule over others and dictate how they live their lives. You’ll notice we have only one servant, and I pay and treat him well. I don’t need to be ‘Lord Greyhart.’ I want you to be able to choose to be Lord Greyhart, because although you might not care to at the moment, you may change your mind later in life. And when you’re a modestly paid artist married to a commoner with no family influence, you will have no way to climb back up that ladder. Those opportunities will be too far gone, you will live a life of regret, and your children and all their children after them will pay the consequences of your short-sightedness. I know what I’m asking of you isn’t easy. But nothing worth doing is.”
Ryden sat against the wall and massaged his temples, taking a deep breath. “I know... I know you’re right, but I can’t deny how I feel.”
Post-Edit (111 Words)
“I’m sorry,” Ryden mumbled. “I didn’t mean to question what you’ve done for us. But still… I wish I had a choice.”
“Life isn’t about self-serving choices and freedom from consequence. It’s about responsibility and duty. It’s about doing what’s right. Think of your future children. Do you want them to live in comfort, to never know hunger or desperation?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Then your path is clear. Marrying the farmgirl will not give you those things. Becoming an artist will not give you those things.”
Ryden slumped against the wall, head down. “I know... I know you’re right, but I can’t deny how I feel. I love her, Father.”
The essence of those two passages is the exact same, only the first is three times as long. Some of my chapters are full of back-and-forth dialogue between characters, and though the dialogue eventually gets somewhere, “eventually” isn’t ideal for maintaining a reader’s interest. So you condense, over and over and over.
Until your eyeballs hurt.
But how? How do you choose what to take out and what to leave in?
For dialogue, I often ask myself “what is the TLDR (too long, didn’t read, which, in millennial speak, means ‘summary’) of each exchange?” What’s the outcome? And what is the quickest way to reach that outcome?
In the above section, Rylar originally asks his son three variants of the same question, which eats up six lines on the page. Then Ryden challenges him, and Rylar responds for an entire paragraph before the conclusion comes around. I condensed the three variants down a single question, and then removed the challenge, because in the end, that mini-exchange doesn’t change anything.
The above section is just one part of their long discussion, but after boiling several lines down to the vital bits multiple times over, I’m left with a chapter that’s 1000 words leaner. A book with 38 chapters that are each 1000 words leaner is a book that’ll read much smoother once the words are cut and the tears have dried.
Here’s another example, this one two descriptive paragraphs.
Pre-Edit (214 words)
Rylar rode back to Castle Elhan in the morning, anticipation clouding his ability to enjoy the new spring day with which Rossane had blessed them. The breeze was pleasant and the sun bright, but he felt a peculiar sourness, like something had spoiled inside him. Fatherhood seemed to be an unending exercise in indecision, one that made him long for the relative simplicity of military command. Had he shared too much with Ryden last night? Had he not said enough? And if this war came to fruition, what would it mean for his family?
The father in him wanted to keep Ryden as far from the conflict as possible. The commander in him was almost eager for his son to finally prove himself. However, since Ryden had not yet graduated his training, his involvement in any fighting would be unlikely, except in the most dire of circumstances. Rylar was glad the choice had essentially been made for him. Despite his words the previous night, he knew his son’s lineage did not make him invulnerable. He would never forgive himself if he were to send Ryden to his death, and yet, he knew he couldn't shelter him forever, not if his dreams of cementing the Greyhart legacy into Corbryn’s upper echelons was to be realized.
Post-Edit (158 Words)
Rylar rode back to Castle Elhan in the morning, his doubt spoiling the new spring day with which Rossane had blessed them. The breeze was pleasant and the sun bright, but he felt a peculiar sourness. The constant indecision of fatherhood made him long for the relative simplicity of military command. Had he shared too much with Ryden last night? Had he not said enough? And if this war came to fruition, what would it mean for his family?
The father in him wanted to keep Ryden as far from the conflict as possible. The commander in him was eager for his son to finally prove himself. Though Ryden hadn’t yet passed Vindication, it loomed closer by the day. Rylar held no illusions that if war came to Corbryn, his son would be spared from the fighting. He briefly reconsidered his course. For all his words the previous night, he knew the Greyhart name alone couldn’t protect Ryden.
214 down to 158 is about a 25% reduction. Extrapolate that to a whole chapter and you’ll have a much tighter flow. Not every chapter will be equally reduced, of course. I’m pretty sure my earlier chapters are the most bloated, because I was trying to fit so much information in. Still, I was able to cut out a quarter of the language and keep 100% of the content.
This wasn’t achieved through obliterating any single sentence or phrase, but rather rearranging them to deliver the same information. Look out for words and phrases that mean the same thing or draw the same conclusion. Pick out the strongest parts and delete the rest. There’s no need to state anything more than once. Your readers are smart. This also gives your writing more punch, since your most vivid words won’t be surrounded by dull, empty ones.
Hopefully, by removing unnecessary sections of your work and condensing vital sections into extra crispy subsections, you can maintain control of your language, your word count, and most importantly, your story.
Be dispassionate. Be ruthless. Treat your story like you’ll make a dollar for every word you cut.
And remember, when your resolve weakens and your finger hovers over the “delete” key in a moment of emotion-driven paralysis, just ask yourself:
What would Thanos do?