Put Your Manuscript on a Diet: 3 Steps to Reduce Your Word Count

kill your darlings

Listen to your instinct, improve your writing, and reduce word count.

Debut novels are usually 80,000 to 90,000 words. YA novels are often less than that. Having edited an unusually high number of overlong manuscripts this year, here are some top cuts to reduce word count that I find myself recommending in almost every project.


 1. Reduce word count by paring down dialogue and dialogue tags.

Is there too much body orchestration? Do characters say the same thing more than once? Is there too much chitchat?

Too much body orchestration:

“He was here yesterday,” she said. Reba popped her gum and flipped her hair over her shoulder again. She was sitting on the stool with her legs crossed at the knee and[.] [H]er elbow [was] propped on the bar, and pointedly, she turned her wrist over and glanced at her watch. Bored, she added, “Anything else?”

Repetition in dialogue:

“Brody, you know you want to. She would say yes.”

His son flipped the toothpick around and started picking his nails.

“Brody, don’t you ignore me.”

“I’m busy on prom night.”

“And I’m your father. Tomorrow, ask her to the prom, and if she says no, you don’t pout. You smile and tell her to have a good time, and show her what a gentleman is.”

“She said no to Christian Masterson last week. I don’t have half Christian Masterson’s speed on the field and not a cent of his family’s money. She will laugh at me.

“You and your stupid pride.”

“Any girl I ever liked was smart enough to know she’s gotta leave this place, Dad. Mom knew it, right? She walked out on us because we’re hicks. She’s too good for this place. Nobody will say it out loud, but it’s true. “

Too much chitchat:

Hey, Gloria! How are you today?”

“Hon, you won’t believe it. I went all the way to the market for peaches and they were out.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. Look, I have to ask you a favor, and you’re not going to like it.”


2. Reduce word count by trimming descriptions.

Does the narrator circle around the best detail before finally finding it? This is an artifact of the writing process, where the writer is “scanning” in her mind’s eye, recording what she sees on the page. But in the final editing phases, often times the best detail is one that implies many of the others.


The man waded out into the powerful surf. It foamed up and soaked his boots, and then his jeans, and the hem of his shirt, hissing. The sky was bruised with fast-moving clouds, and when he shouted a name, the name came back to him in torn-apart syllables. Return to sender, no one by that name at this address. The sea forgot everyone it devoured, if it ever knew them in the first place. He stood for ten minutes, shivering in the brine, and then gave up.

3. Reduce word count by getting into scenes as late and possible and out as early as possible. 

This is a brilliant principle borrowed from screenwriting, and it lends itself well to tightly plotted novels. Elizabeth Lyon, Robert McKee, and Stephen King have excellent advice on scene economy in their craft books. Generally, these two questions will help you identify the bare-knuckles start and end of your scene:

Ask yourself, where does the status quo change? That’s the moment when the scene begins. Cut all or most of what precedes it.

Then, when does your character know s/he needs to do something to alleviate his or her new distress? That’s the end point.

Now, roll up your sleeves, kill your darlings, and reduce your word count. Among the many skills a professional writer needs to demonstrate to an agent and acquiring editor, storytelling economy is a big one. It is important because, beyond the work of finishing the manuscript and selling it to a publisher, your reader will appreciate a lean, un-put-down-able novel.

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