Practical tips to tackle a manuscript that’s too long without killing the scenes you love.
So, you’ve written THE END on your draft, congratulations! The only problem is, your word count is way too high for your genre. I work with a lot of writers working on their first books, which I love. But I don’t love delivering hard news. Like, when a writer comes to me with a book that’s 175,000 words — and it’s middle grade. (If you’re new to word count norms in publishing, this is about 3x too long for a middle grade novel).
Writers come to me, wanting me to developmentally edit their book, even if they know it’s waaay too long. They hope I’ll tell them their book is so good they can publish it that way. But I can’t say that. Because here’s the problem with bloated word count:
- You’re breaking reader expectations, which may result in their disappointment
- You’ll get instantly rejected by agents and publishers, thinking you haven’t done your homework (and they may not bother to tell you why)
Also, please don’t compare yourself to that one breakout book that is oodles too long in your genre. Unless you already have millions of readers lined up, you haven’t earned the right to be that exception yet, because extra word count means:
- Higher editing/layout costs
- Higher printing costs
- Higher costs to produce an audio-book
- Publishers will have to charge an arm and a leg to make a profit on your book, so instead, they’ll pass on the opportunity to work with you
- Even if you publish independently, you’ll struggle to make a profit, because these costs will be yours to bear
(Word count expectations depend on the genre, but can range from 50,000 for a non-fiction self help or a middle grade, to 110,000 for an adult fantasy novel. There’s a little bit of wiggle room in the ranges, but don’t be way outside. If you’re not sure what expectations are in your genre, look at similar books that have been recently published.)
If you insist on keeping every word you’ve written, you’re only making your journey to find readers harder on yourself. But I get it. You’ve spent months, probably years on your manuscript. You were so focused on producing words every time you sat down to write that you forgot to track the total word count, or maybe you didn’t even know word count was a thing.
You love your characters. You feel every scene and action you included is needed in your book. The thought of parting with any of it feels like a vice is squeezing you around the chest. But for the reasons listed above, trimming your word count will be your book’s best chance of getting discovered, read, loved, and shared, selling thousands of copies. If you want this for your book (I know you do!), you have to deal with this problem.
Sometimes, the answer is to split your manuscript into multiple books, if there’s a natural break. But usually, there’s a better, easier option. Have I got your attention? Good.
What if I told you there are places you can target in your book to get rid of word count, while making your writing even more engaging for your reader?
The techniques I share here don’t require a rewrite, and will make your writing more readable and focused. You’ve got nothing to lose by giving them a try.
Slash Filler Words
When we speak, we use “um” or “ah” to pause when we’re thinking. In writing, writers use filler words to fill that gap while they type (or pen) their words to let their brains catch up. Weird, right?
The thing about filler words is they’re not incorrect. Your sentences will read fine with them, so spell check won’t catch them. But about 80% of the time, these words distract the reader, and the sentence can be restructured without them. Note: Sometimes these words serve a purpose, so please don’t delete them all, you’ll have to do a FIND (ctrl F on most keyboards will get you to the find function) and look at them one at a time. I’ve had dozens of clients weed out 3,000 words or more from a manuscript just by using this trick (that’s 12 pages of filler!), so it’s totally worth your time.
Some of the most common words writers use as filler are
But there are dozens more. You might be surprised which words you’re sticking into sentences as you go.
I’ve personally had a different problem word with each book I’ve written that I didn’t notice until the revision stage. Brains are amazing, right? Run your manuscript against the full list of filler words/phrases I’ve compiled. You can get a PDF list here.
Kill Filter Words/Phrases
Filter words, like Filler words are unnecessary in your writing. But these have the added consequence of making your readers care less about your characters and their journeys, because they are used to distance your Point of View (POV) character from the actions your characters are taking. When you use them, it’s like you’ve inserted a filter or narrator between your reader and what’s happening on the page. This doesn’t make them feel like they’re in your book, experiencing what your character is experiencing.
If you read a lot of classic books, you’ll see their pages are riddled with filter phrases. So, if you’re going for more of a literary or old-timey feel, a few filter phrases might be fine. But in recent years, deep point of view is becoming more popular, and removing these phrases will drag your readers in more. Not to mention, since you’re eliminating several words with each instance, removing them can reduce word count fast, and that’s what we’re targeting in this list.
Look for these verbs that indicate you might be using filter phrases and see if you can rework the sentence without them. Aim to reduce these by 90% if you can. Some examples to search for and remove include:
to be able to
Eliminate Dialogue Tags
If you’re writing for adults, dialogue tags (example: she said) aren’t strictly necessary. Look for places in your draft where you have a dialogue tag and then an action beat, like this:
Instead of (10 words):
“Your word count is shrinking,” Suzy said (dialogue tag), clapping her hands (action beat).
Try (9 words):
Remove the dialogue tag, and leave only the action beat.
“Your word count is shrinking.” Suzy clapped her hands.
Note: If you’re writing middle grade or for a lower reading level, you’ll want to leave the dialogue tags in, because newer readers need them for comprehension. But if you’re writing for adults? Go to town. Just be sure to leave the action beats there so that readers can tell who’s talking.
Remove Character Names in Dialogue
This one’s easy.
If you phoned me right now, you could say, “Suzy, this advice is awesome!”
But it’s less words to say, “This advice is awesome!” and it means the same thing, since I know you’re talking to me. Plus, in real life, we don’t go around using people’s names all the time. It’s just awkward.
Combine Repeated Scenes, Recaps, or Characters
If your word count is still too high, don’t despair. The next place to look is for places in your book that feel similar.
- Do your characters visit a location several times? See if you can combine the events into less visits to that location. You’ll keep all the “stuff” that happens, but combining scenes will give you lots of opportunity to tighten up word count.
- Do you have a scene where a character is telling their brother about something that the reader already witnessed in an earlier scene? Don’t make us hear it all again *yawn*. Reduce it to a quick recap:
Geronimo filled Luther in on the fist fight.
- Have a few characters that ended up with similar goals and voices? Combine them into one person. This allows you to keep dialogue, keep events, even backstory, but will definitely save you word count, because you have less characters to introduce and include.
Even if you love your draft the way it is, try to keep an open mind. Fitting within a genre’s word count expectations will make your book more accessible to readers, and more saleable. And ultimately, these changes will make your writing as strong as it can be, so it’s a win-win situation.
Looking for more practical writing tips?
I share some of my best tips writing tips in my all-new free Masterclass. Watch it here.
Suzy Vadori is the award-winning author of The Fountain Series and is represented by Naomi Davis of Bookends Literary Agency. She is a certified Book Coach with Author Accelerator and the founder of the Wicked Good Fiction Bootcamp. Suzy breaks down concepts in writing into practical steps, so that writers with big dreams can get the story exploding in their minds onto their pages in a way that readers will LOVE.
In addition to her online courses, Suzy offers 1:1 Developmental Editing and Book Coaching services, and gives practical tips for writers at all stages on her vlog and Free Inspired Writing Facebook Group.
Candace Coakley says
Suzy, thank you for sharing these killer tips!
Thank you for the tips! It’s a major weakness for me and I need all the help I can get.
Gifford MacShane says
Great ideas, Suzy. It’s so refreshing to NOT hear someone say something other than “no adverbs”!
I’ve got another tip: I once slashed over 4,000 words from a 128K manuscript by using contractions instead of “he would”, “he did not”, etc. This works especially well in dialogue, where it can sound unnatural.
I also create a word cloud to spot my overused words, as they seem to change from story to story.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
These things have such a huge impact, so thank you, Suzy! I know some writers resist tightening their writing, telling themselves that “this is just how I write, and it’s my style” but this sort of necessary work can take a story from good to great. 🙂
Suzy Vadori says
Yes, it’s more than just “style”. Tightening writing will make readers like your story more, even if they have no idea why. These trucks can trim thousands of words from word count without losing a writer’s amazing ideas 💜
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for all these great tips, Suzy! I tend to write extremely bloated first drafts during NaNoWriMo. My manuscripts need to go on a serious diet during the first round of revisions.
Suzy Vadori says
Yes, and these mechanical edits can take the pain out of that first revision draft. 😀
I have some bad habits with filler words from NaNoWriMo and trying to hit those word count goals too. But it’s so satisfying to tighten it all up in editing and see how much better it reads!