In almost all of your writing, you’re eventually going to want to trim it down.
How much varies from case to case, sure, but almost always you reach a certain point in a project where you’ve said too much and it‘s in your best interest to cut it back even five to ten percent.
This goes for novels. Personal essays. Screenplays. Research papers. And definitely short stories. In short fiction every word truly counts, so it’s in your best interest to cut the piece down as much as you can.
I’m in the revision process of a new short story at the moment. The first draft came in at 5,040 words. I wanted to get it under 4,000 words. Yep, I wanted to cut more than twenty percent of the story. Last year I had success with two short stories that came in under 4,000 words (while a story from 2016 I adore that’s a whopping 6,500 words still hasn’t been accepted for publication).
I’m currently on the third draft of my latest story, and it’s at about 4,200 words. I’m going to shave off 200+ more words no matter what it takes. And you know how I’m going to do it? By continuing to implement five simple strategies that work for me every time.
Yes, no matter what kind of writing project you take on, there are five simple ways to trim them down considerably…
1. Delete any sentence that doesn’t add substance.
This is the strategy you should start with. If your project is going on too long and you want to shave off some words fast, a great thing to do is go through it slowly and study each of your sentences. Many of the sentences that can go you’ll recognize instantly. Other sentences that can go won’t be so obvious on your first read-through, and you might want to go through the manuscript a few more times.
I don’t start submitting a short story to literary magazines until I’ve revised it five times, at least. Usually it’s more like seven or eight revisions. And whenever I return to a story that keeps getting rejected, I look at the word count and wonder what I can do to shorten it by even 100 or 200 words.
Often there are sentences in your work that don’t need to be there. That don’t necessarily add any substance. That’s telling rather than showing. That repeats something that was already said five pages before. You want all of these to go. You want your piece to be as clean and compelling as possible.
2. Remove all your adverbs.
You read that right. I know you don’t want to. I know you’ve heard over and over again that adverbs are bad, that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, but it’s all true. At least 95% of your adverbs should go. Preferably 100% of them. Adverbs weaken your writing, and they often tell your reader things far more often than they show your reader things.
And you know what’s great about cutting all or most of your adverbs? You can shave your word count down considerably! You can go through your manuscript page by page and search for all those pesky little “-ly” words that shouldn’t be there.
Even in novels, when you have lots more white space to work with, you should cut out most of your adverbs. They rarely serve a purpose.
3. Put extra focus on any block paragraphs.
This goes for any kind of writing project you take on. Block paragraphs aren’t much fun to read. They’re often stuffed with long, arduous sentences that should be shaved down. There’s usually too much description that goes on and on and on. You might think your reader needs to know every single little thing you add to the paragraph that goes on for a page and a half, but really, do you really need it all?
When you’re trying to shave down your word count, a simple strategy to take on is to go through your manuscript page by page and pay particular attention to any paragraph that goes on longer than, say, seven or eight lines. And certainly any paragraph that goes on for longer than ten lines.
Read those sentences extra carefully and ask yourself if you need everything. Could you at least shorten some of the sentences? Are there details you could cut by even a few words? A win is getting a fifteen-line paragraph down to twelve lines. Or ten lines. Or even less!
4. Trim down paragraphs where three or fewer words carry over to the next line.
Here’s an excellent trick I picked up a few years back from a screenwriting book, of all things. A screenplay should rarely go over 120 pages, so the authors talked about how if you’re at 125 pages or 130 pages, the easiest way to cut the work down is to look for words carried over from a previous line and trim enough words to eliminate that extra line.
You can use this strategy in all the writing you do, including non-fiction writing, short story writing, novel writing. I use this strategy all the time. It’s gotten to the point now where I actually get uncomfortable any time I see a single word straggler on its own line.
So, for example, when you see any paragraphs like this in your Word document…
…you want to do everything in your power to bring those four lines down to three. See how that straggler word “ask” looks awkward and gives you all that white space to the right of it? It doesn’t look great to begin with, and it gives you an awesome excuse to cut down the paragraph by a word or two.
In about ten seconds I read through the paragraph and found an easy way at the top to cut out three words. The paragraph now reads better, cleaner. And there’s not that icky “ask” in a fourth unnecessary line.
You’ll be shocked at how many words you can cut from your manuscript if you start looking for those stragglers on every page and eliminate all of them. Depending on the length of your project, it’s often hundreds and hundreds of words. And your manuscript is improved in the process. It’s a win-win!
5. Cut every unnecessary word.
This is the last of the strategies you should take on. I’m talking, the very final read-through before you start sending out your work. The last thing you should do is go super slowly through the manuscript and look for any potential words you can cut. I’m talking every “the” and “at” and “a” or whatever. Pay close attention to each of your sentences and see if there’s a way to trim it down even by a single word.
I started doing something last year with my short fiction that seemed to work wonders, since both pieces eventually ended up being published in fantastic literary journals. After I went through a few revisions and felt like there was nothing left I could do to improve the stories, I printed them out. Printing out your work and doing one final edit by hand makes a huge difference because often you miss certain things when all you’re looking at is a screen.
For each story I spent about one hour and slowly went through it sentence by sentence with a pen and made note of any paragraph or sentence or word I thought could go. This final step I took shaved off an additional 200 to 300 words, getting each story down to the precise length I wanted it to be.
And you know what happened next? Both of the stories were accepted for publication within weeks, not a few years like some of my other stories.
So give any or all of these five strategies a try in the weeks to come.
They’re all fairly simple, after all. There’s no big mystery behind any of them, and what’s great is that if you implement these strategies more and more, they’ll come to you naturally.
You’ll automatically look for sentences that can go, and adverbs, and block paragraphs, and those straggler words carried over from the previous line, and any unnecessary word that shouldn’t be there.
You will see all of it, and you’ll be able to take a writing project that’s decent or good… and make it great!
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