How to Trim Words From Your Manuscript by Janice Hardy

Posted by on Aug 18, 2014 in Editing Wizardry, Writing | 10 comments

How to Trim Words From Your Manuscript by Janice Hardy

Hello! Welcome to week three of Pen and Muse Press Summer School 2014!

This week’s “course” is Editing Wizardry – because what writer hasn’t wished they had a little magic to help through the revising and editing process?

We thought the perfect author to stop by and kick off this session is Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars trilogy + Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure .

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How to Trim Words From Your Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Cutting down a too-long manuscript can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never done it before. My first novel was 150,000 words and needed to be closer to 100,000 to stand any chance at selling. That meant one-third of the novel had to go, and that seemed like an impossible task. I needed all those words to tell my story, and I couldn’t delete any scenes or the whole plot would far apart.

It took a long time and a lot of bad rewrites before I figured out the secret to cutting down a too-long manuscript wasn’t about cutting scenes but trimming words.

Here’s an easy process for getting your word count down:

Step One: Get in the Right Mindset to Trim

I think what makes trimming a manuscript so daunting is the idea that we’ll have to cut scenes or subplots we love. That’s a worst-case scenario and most long novels can hit their target word count without heavy cuts to the story.

Before you start cutting, remind (or reassure) yourself that the first pass is just trimming the fat and tightening the prose. You won’t be cutting anything story related.


Step Two: Determine Your Target Word Count

When dealing with numbers, it helps to have concrete goals. Ambiguity is not your friend here, so pick a number you want to hit, whatever that may be. So if you want to go from 150,000 words to 100,000, you know you need to trim 50,000 words. If the target feels impossible, try picking a number halfway there. It’ll seem more manageable and allow you the freedom to cut without feeling like you have to hack your manuscript to pieces.


Step Three: Determine Your Per Page Cut Count

This is the secret to trimming words, and it’s all in the math. The average page size is 250 words, so a 150,000-word novel will be around 600 pages. 50,000 words is a lot to cut, but not if you approach it on a page by page basis. If you cut just ten words per page, you trim it by 6,000 words. Ten words is nothing–that’s the size of this sentence. Cut twenty words, you just hit the 12,000-word mark. Eighty words practically gets you the entire 50,000 words.

The above paragraph is ninety words. You cut that size out of every page and that’s 54,000 words. That doesn’t seem like a lot now, does it?

Before you start, figure out how many words per page you’ll need to cut. Let’s look at something a little smaller this time. Say you have a 100,000-word novel and you want to trim it to 80,000 words.

  • Take your total word count and divide it by 250 to get your page count (100,000 divided by 250 = 400)
  • Take the amount of words you need to cut and divide it by the total number of pages (20,000 words divided by 400 = 50)
  • Cut 50 words per page to hit your target word count of 80,000 words

Those three bullet points are 63 words by the way. See how small 50 words really is?


Step Four: Trim Your Manuscript by the Words-to-Cut-Per-Page Number

This is the hardest part, but it’ll be a lot easier with those per page targets to aim for. Go page by page and cut out the predetermined number of words. If you go over or under, that’s fine, as some pages will have more words you can cut while others will be fairly tight. Repeat this step until you hit your target word count.


Helpful Tips for the Trimming

1. Don’t feel you have to do it all on in one pass. It’s okay if you can’t hit the per page cut numbers on the first try, just cut what you can and move on. You’ll also find that it gets easier to trim the longer you do it, so by the end of the manuscript you won’t feel so bad about hitting the delete key. Odds are you’ll find words to trim in the beginning that you didn’t cut on the first pass.

2. Break it into acts. The traditional novel structure consists of three acts. Act two is typically half the novel, so it breaks nicely into four chunks of 25% each. If you look at the total number of words you want to cut, and divide that by four, you can see how much you should cut from each 25% chunk. This can keep you from cutting too much or too little in any one section and throwing off the pacing of your story. It’s also a good way to see if your story structure is off.

For example, in an 80,000-word novel, the beginning will be around 20,000 words (up to the first major turning point of the plot), the middle is 40,000 (the ramp up to the midpoint moment of the plot, then the ramp down from the midpoint), and the ending is the last 20,000 words (the journey to the climax and resolution of the story). If your first major turning point occurs at 35,000 words into the story, that could indicate the beginning is too long and you might need to cut more words from that area.

3. Do a search for common trouble words. There are some words that like to cause trouble and these can bloat a manuscript. “That” can frequently be cut without changing the meaning of the sentence. Redundant words such as sat “down” or climbed “up” can also go. “Just” and “only” sneak in all the time and are strong candidates for the trash. Even dialog tags are good words to consider cutting, as they’re often unnecessary. ‘”You’re a dead man,” she said, pulling out a knife,’ can work just as well as ‘”You’re a dead man.” She pulled out a knife.’ Qualifiers are others words to look for, such as “almost” and “really” and “nearly.”

4. Look at commonly over-written areas. A too-long novel is often heavy on descriptions and stage directions, so that’s a easy place to start when looking for words to cut. Pay attention to repeated ideas or tell-ish lead ins, such as, ‘She was so angry. “You jerk!” she screamed, flinging the coffee cup across the room at his head.’ This could easily become ‘”You jerk!” She flung the coffee cut at his head.’ Eight words saved right there and you don’t lose anything.

5. Look at the page, not the story. It’s easy to get caught up in the story when trimming, so it can be helpful to edit the work out of order. Perhaps work backward, or print it out and shuffle the pages, or do it chapter by chapter starting with even numbers and then moving to odds. Use whatever technique lets you separate yourself from the story and focus on the actual words.

6. Don’t hurt the prose to save a word. It can be tempting to cut every “she said” or adverb and trim the prose down to the bare essentials, but don’t forget that language has a rhythm and a flow of its own. Preserve your voice as well as the story, and if a sentence sounds better longer, go ahead and leave it. Look at the quality as well as the quantity and cut what isn’t helping the story.

A heavy edit is a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm you if you take it step by step and page by page. By the end, not only will you have a shorter novel, but a tighter one as well.

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, a resource site with helpful tips and writing advice for writers of every level. She’s also the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Planning Your Novel by Janice HardyThe Shifter by Janice Hardy
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  1. Yes, I’ve used many of these to trim my stories, and in the end they are better for it. Great idea to break this task into pieces as it can be overwhelming if you only look at the whole. Thanks for the helpful post.

    • Happy to help. Working in smaller pieces also gives a stronger sense of accomplishment as each piece is completed, which can be useful when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere with a novel.

  2. I’ve found that doing the trimming out of order definitely works for me. I ask myself, “What am I trying to say here? Can I say it with fewer words?”

    All these tips are good, but one I use a lot isn’t mentioned here: contractions. I’ve found lots of places, especially in dialog, where I can trim words just by using contractions. Of course, using contractions depends on style and mood. I write epic fantasy, so too many contractions can make the story feel slangy and contemporary. I don’t want to lose the “epic” feel. Like everything in writing, balance is key.

  3. Janice I am taking an editing course at the moment and really appreciate this post. It is jammed packed full of great tips. I will share it with my writing group. Thank you.

    • Thanks! Good luck on your course :) Hope you learn lots more useful tips.

  4. Great tips. Put this, trimming 50 words per page seems like a manageable number!!

    • It really is, and that’s the beauty of it. Not only does it trim words, but it trains us to write tighter in our first drafts since we’re now aware of those “extra words.”

  5. I’ve learned to be a master “cutter” of words from my manuscripts, and I love finding tips for how to cut even more. One of my critique partners pointed out to me with my last manuscript that I have a habit of writing “at phrases” and unnecessary prepositional phrases at the end of sentences. These phrases add nothing to the meaning and can actually detract from a sentence’s impact. Thank you for some more great tips to help trim the fat.

  6. This is a fantastic post. I’ve never needed to cut that much from my work so far, but I may need it in the future. I’ll keep this post safe for then ;-)


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