I cut my hair short. Really short. Like, more than 12 inches are now gone.
Please understand that for the longest time, I wanted really long hair. I used to have hair down past my mid-back when I was in college, and I wanted to Go To That. I was going to grow my hair long, super long, like registered-weapon-if-braided-and-spun-like-a-whip long. And for months — actually, the better part of a year — I didn’t cut my hair. I may be short, but my hair could be long! (Tall? Nah.)
But I needed a change. Something different. And so, snip. Short hair!
That got me thinking about cutting words during a revision. (Because yes, everything comes back to writing. It’s an obsession!) A revision isn’t always about chopping words; sometimes, it’s about adding new material. But often, we take things out during a revision. Drafts can be long and sloppy — that can be part of the joy of writing without blinders and just going where the story takes us. We can spend a paragraph describing something that requires only a sentence. We can POV-hop because we want to make sure the reader really gets the Full Picture. We can stretch dialogue so far that we lose track of the purpose of the conversation. We can do all of these things and more. That’s why there comes a point when we have to tighten our prose. In other words…sometimes, we just gotta cut.
I recently cut 88 pages out of a manuscript. That was more than 16,000 words. Now, when I finished the previous version of the manuscript, I’d thought I was done. But no; there was definitely room to cut. A lot of room. And so, I made with the editorial scissors and chopped. But there was a strategy to it; just like I wouldn’t want to just take scissors and cut away sections of hair without knowing how I want it to look after I’m done cutting, I wouldn’t want to chop word count without a goal in mind. In this case, my goal was to tighten overall without changing the plot, the subplots, the humor, or the voice.
Here are five tips for you when it’s time to cut words:
1. Reread the manuscript. Start at the very beginning, and take your time with every sentence. Does it flow smoothly? Does your attention drift? Does it feel at any point like a sentence or a paragraph goes on too long? Pay attention to any nagging feelings you have as you read; don’t dismiss your inner editor. As you reread, flag anything that you think may need to be chopped, or anything that trips you up, or anything that sets off your inner editor, even if you don’t know why the alarm is beeping.
2. Before you change anything, make sure you SAVE AS. I can’t stress this enough: You don’t want to make changes on your only clean copy of the manuscript. The UNDO command goes only so far. If you’re making a big change, do a SAVE AS and keep going. That way, if it really doesn’t work, you’re not totally hosed.
3. Rethink description. Do you really need an entire page to describe a room that your protagonist is in? Or an entire section that talks about what someone is wearing? Are you waxing poetic over the weather? Many times, less is truly more — by giving too much description, you’re taking away the readers’ ability to envision the scene however they imagine it. Give the pertinent information without going overboard.
4. Don’t browbeat the readers. In our effort to ensure that our readers get what we’re saying, we may elaborate on a point that really doesn’t need it. This is sort of like when you’re talking to someone who asks you to do something, and even after you agree to do it, that person keeps going on about all the reasons why you should do it. Once you make your point on the page, excellent — move on. This, in particular, is where I have to truly “murder my darlings” — there are times when I love, love, love a sentence or phrase, and I really want to keep it…but I’ve already done what I needed to do, and anything else would be gratuitous. For those times, I save those phrases and whatnot in a file called USE LATER.
5. Tighten your dialogue. In real life, conversations go all over the place. People say “um” a lot. (A LOT.) It takes a while to get to a point, and then we can march right past the point and just keep talking. Novels are not real life. Dialogue, like description, has to serve a purpose — which means, again, less can be more. Read dialogue aloud. Are you tripping over words? Are you able to keep the thread of the conversation going, even with dialogue tags and inner monologues interrupting the flow? For that matter, are all those tags and inner monologues necessary? Losing dialogue tags can go a long way, both in terms of cutting word count and tightening the pace of dialogue.
There you go: Jackie’s Five Tips To Cut Word Count. You’re welcome. As a bonus, here’s a pic of me with my short hair: