I have just finished a concision edit on my work-in-progress that I didn’t exactly aim to do.
Mainly, because I’d already done one. After my last full read, I’d finally captured the full emotional thrust of the story I’d always been going for. The cause-and-effect trajectory was all there, the turning points that solder arcs of change for the main characters were there, the stakes were high, the premise was fully explored. Its identity, tight.
But not tight enough. I was over my desired word count.
On one hand, I didn’t let that bother me overmuch. This is a big story, and I wanted to make sure each of its layers had a strong foundation. On the other hand, I was open to even more concision. When you’ve said just enough, and no more, your words are strung together by magnetic energy. This is a worthy goal.
As it turned out, checking boxes on my final self-editing list continued to tighten the manuscript. Here’s how it worked for me, in case it helps you. I’m calling them “random” ways because in each case, my primary goal was different than aiding concision.
[x] Stop just before you want to
Early on in my career, a remarkable agent took time out of her busy schedule to explain to me by phone that I’d written beyond the end of the story. Beyond the climactic plot point, the reader can imagine the rest. But seriously, who wants to stop writing, when you can finally give your characters the happiness and peace of mind they’ve sought? Not me. meaning, I was doing the same thing again in this novel—and in doing so, inadvertently changed the novel’s intent.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was revising toward The End, I identified a place where I could echo some wording I’d used at the break into the second act—something noted by my character then, but not acted upon. I added the words again, at a place where she was acting on them—and right away, I heard four additional words, loud and clear. I typed them in and wow, there it was—that satisfying click that told me the story question had been answered. By that point, it had been long-established what she wanted, and it’s clear what she’s heading toward, and guess what? The reader really can imagine the rest. Over 2K words, gone.
Only 5,500 to go, lol.
[x] Renumber chapters
My next task was to update chapter numbers, since once I get into a heavy developmental edit, I never bother to do so. I also noted the length. My chapters were a little longer this time, on average 10-13 pages. Shorter, punchier chapters were 8. So when one came up 5, that was worth a second look. Was it even punchier? Or, perhaps, not necessary at all?
If a reader can understand the story without one of its scenes, it isn’t needed. This is the sort of determination you can miss when reading straight through, seduced by prose you love, characters who have won your heart, and who are ensconced in a situation that grips you. If your scenes are following a cause-and-effect chain, you’ll simply accept that scene as “this is what she did next.” The question is, whether or not the reader needs to watch her.
This leftover chapter fragment, once I boiled it down, had four paragraphs of crucial material. I split them up and reallocated them. Another 1.2K words deleted.
Then I lingered with each chapter opening, analyzing scene arcs to make sure the breaks came in the right places. adding line breaks resulted in a few inane openings, such as a meal scene that was fun and revealed character, but to which my protagonist brought no clear goal. I ditched them and focused in on reader seduction (raising a question at the opening of each chapter that draws a reader in) and reader retention (raising a question at the end of the chapter so they can’t stop reading there). More active language in these locations trimmed additional fat. Even a few words excised here and there add up over the course of a novel, and each time I trimmed fat, I sharpened intent.
[x] Scan for first words of paragraphs
I always take one scroll through and look to make sure paragraphs begin with a healthy variety of words. I was writing in first person, so this also included the technique that Chuck Palahniuk, in his book Consider This (reviewed by Keith Cronin here), calls “Bury the I.” It could also be called “Bury your Protagonist’s Name,” for that matter—even in third person, you don’t want each paragraph to read “Gwynne did this” and “Gwynne thought that”—but it is true that “I’s” can come across as me-me-me.
This helped me identify unneeded point-of-view filters, like “I saw, noticed, realized, thought, knew,” etc. In an established point of view, “I knew that Hattie didn’t like tuna fish” is the same as “Hattie didn’t like tuna fish.” “I knew” overuse was on my mind after reviewing a recent client’s manuscript and hadn’t been aware of my own penchant, but when I searched for the phrase, I found many candidates for dumping.
Bonus: questioning the opening of a sentence often caused me to review the entire paragraph, which I could do more objectively out of context. This helped me strike additional unneeded sentences.
[x] Address word overuse
My overused words and phrases change with each premise. This project, set in an ice storm, featured a lot of devastating devastation, along with popping and snapping and cracking. Using Word’s “Find” function helped me assess overused terms, which sometimes led to the removal of fully reiterated concepts.
[x] Do a spell check
This was my final step in tidying up—which provided yet one more way to flip through the novel in a random way, allowing me to stop when I saw something awry.
All of these measures allowed me to skim across the surface of my story, over and over, faster and faster, helping me see the big picture and how it was implemented. It also helped me locate a half dozen different “Chekhov’s guns”—details I’d hung on the wall of story but never made good on. If you argued the reader never would have noticed them missing, I’d agree—but it’s so fun for the reader who catches that Mom taught her daughter something at one point early on, and then later in the novel, witnesses that daughter wielding that knowledge in front of Mom. “Her little girl is growing up,” your reader will think—and you won’t have had to say it.
Carrying through these measures added a week of very long days to my schedule. But in the end, I was able to trim 7,500 words, and since I found a plot thread I’d never addressed, I had room to add a short scene, bringing the total to the 7K I had hoped to trim.
Let me put that in perspective: I cut some 25 manuscript pages without specifically intending to do so.
Once your story structures are sound, concision will impact cohesion, making your story more memorable.
I hope—it went out to my agent today. Wish me luck!
What methods have you stumbled across that help you cut unneeded word count from your novel? Please share so we can make a nice long list!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!