How to Reduce Your Word Count

Two weeks ago, I broke down the ten ways you can increase your word count. This week, I’m listing the top five ways you can trim your manuscript.

A thin first draft may be the product of underwriting and a bloated manuscript may be the result of overwriting, but the truth is all works in progress (WIP) can benefit from the following five tips. Even if you’re an underwriter, I promise that the quality of your prose will improve if you apply the following suggestions to your work. By cutting out filter words, tightening sentences, reducing dialogue tags and combining two scenes or two characters together, your writing will become precise, snappy and attention-grabbing. And that’s the aim of the game peeps, to keep the reader reading.

If you prefer to video content, check out the YouTube version of this post.

Cut filter words

Filter words are unnecessary words that act as a barrier between the reader and the story’s action. If you are writing in close third person, a common example is having your main character (MC) narrate the actions of another character. For example, Lauren saw Anthony open the door. This description has greater impact when written as Anthony opened the door. You may think that removing Lauren’s POV is pretty insignificant in the face of an entire manuscript, but filter words can add up quickly, especially if your project is a 150, 000-word tomb. Cutting filter words will not only have a huge impact on your word count, it will also improve the quality of your prose.

Some key filter words to be on the lookout for are: really, very, just, began, started, sudden, see, look, hear, wonder, feel and think.

Whenever these words appear in a sentence, you can usually rewrite it to better effect. For example, She felt really sad, packs a lot more punch when written as, She was devastated, alternatively, you can show the emotion, She crumbled to her knees.

Tighten your sentences

Not to be confused with reducing filter words, tightening up your sentences means cutting unnecessary descriptions, purple prose or repetitive sentences. For example:

The slick black snake gleamed in the morning light as it slithered through the dry grass towards the small, brown, field mouse.

Now, here’s the same sentence tightened up.

The black snake slithered towards the field mouse.

Congratulations! You just cut 14 words from your manuscript!

Yes, I know, description is important, but you don’t need to spend 22 words describing how a snake is about to eat a mouse. Be selective with your description and make it count. The reader doesn’t need to know the time of day or that the grass is dry in order to comprehend the scene, so cut it.

Another common mistake is repetitive sentences or phrases; lines that say the same things twice, only in slightly different ways. See what I did there? Some repetitive phrases are, first priority; I personally; repeat again. And another example of repetitive sentences would be: She left via the front door and stepped into the morning light. Leaving the warmth of the house, Becky couldn’t recall when she’d last watched a sunrise.   

Another example is including too many body movements. He lifted his head, looked to the left and right, swiped a curl of hair from his eyes and stepped out onto the street. If you have a tendency to make even mundane movements cinematic, then your word count is going to balloon and the prose will be tedious to read.

Unnecessary scenes

Is that two-page dream sequence really necessary?

Is a dream sequence ever necessary? (I hope so, cos I got one in my novel!)

The general rule is that a scene should either move the plot forward or show character development, ideally, it should do both. I think you know where I’m going with this…

If you have a scene that is entirely built around showing character development, revealing backstory or giving the reader a glimpse into the protagonist’s interior life, consider moving that into an action scene. Let’s say your protagonist is sitting on the couch, talking to her best friend about how insecure she feels about being the chosen one. What if you trimmed this conversation down and fit it into the scene where the MC is hanging with her team of misfits’ and formulating a plan. Now your scene is working on two level, the misfits’ plan is moving the plot forward and the protagonist’s self-doubt is revealed. 

Unnecessary characters 

I know you think all your characters are necessary, but you need to stop lying to yourself. Remember how the protagonist makes fun of her best friend’s little brother, but the best friend is also the love interest? What purpose is the little brother really serving? If the only purpose of these interactions is comic relief, then consider combining the role of the little brother with that of the best friend. Not only does this declutter your side characters, it also provides opportunities for the protagonist to playfully interact with the best friend/love interest.

Cut down dialogue tags

If two characters are having a conversation, then you don’t need to finish every line of dialogue with he or she said. Yes, you do need to include some dialogue tags, but if you place those attributions in the right place, then your reader will have no problem following along.

“Wow! Filter words? I never heard of that before, but it’s totally a thing. My MC is always wondering and feeling,” Martin said.

Claire grinned, “Mine too! I’ve started trimming my WIP last night, and I’m already down five thousand words.”

“Ah, I thought your short story was six thousand?”

“Shut up.”

So, there you have it. My top five tips for reducing your word count. If you found any of these tips helpful, or if you have a trimming technique of your own that you’d like to share, leave a comment below. Thanks for reading and remember, cut those filter words!

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