Professional book editor in the UK offers 4 effective ways to reduce the word count of your novel, making it more suitable for literary agents and readers!
In fiction writing, my word count is something I always think about before writing a new book; I like to know how long the novel will be at the very start.
I often thought the lengthier a manuscript, the better, and sometimes used complicated words to make my sentences fancy, but looking back, that wasn't the best way forward, which I learnt after hiring a book editor myself years ago.
The craft of writing is easy to perform, but difficult to adhere to when it comes to the rules of how that should be done. A novel is valued far more when under 100,000 words to a literary agent or traditional publisher, which is the first thing they look at - if it's too long, they will likely reject it. This is because an enormous word count to an agent or publisher does not demonstrate talent or a good book, rather - a huge red flag.
My point? I understand how it feels to realise that your word count is too high, or noticed that you have added tons of background information that brings forth nothing to your plotline.
At first, you may defend every word you've written, but sometimes, you have to sacrifice many precious, but unnecessary, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and even entire chapters.
So, how can you reduce your word count without binning most of your narrative?
Let's find out!
Adopt an Editor’s Eye
If you reflectively squint at the words you’ve typed, and are brutal with your manuscript, you’ll find that there is more fat on the bone than meat.
Readers won’t want all that fat, they want the nitty-gritty, to always be into the action, so you should try not to slow the ride to tell them something they already knew, or don’t need to know. This will affect the pacing of your book, so you need to be really brutal to keep your readers interested!
It takes a lot of practice to become adept at this skill, it’s a hard but valuable lesson to learn for all book editors, authors and writers alike.
My advice to you: try to erase any additional writing, or 'fluffing', that either slows down novel's pace or brings no new information to your plotline. You can’t afford to stray, otherwise, you'll risk of boring your readers. 'Fluffing' can be identified by, for example, a sentence or paragraph that rambles so much that it appears nonsensical or irrelevant, much like filler, when it can be said in a singular line.
Editing is the toughest part about writing. You have to make very hard decisions. Often times, a book editor will insist that a writer would benefit from deleting whole chapters that only exist to describe a scene or detail passages and imagery. However, the writer may be resistant to these suggested cuts, because they can’t imagine their finalised product without it being in there.
However, it's important to stay open-minded, because prioritising elaborate descriptions and backstory will only lead to disappointment when it's all cut later.
It can take a while to adjust to the seeming harsh critique, but the book editor’s eye is (almost!) always right as they have the knowledge of what makes a novel successful. That's not to say that I believe that my editorial expertise is more valid than a writer's vision for their book, not at all, I just believe that it's crucial to keep an open-mind and consider all feedback, even if it's not acted upon.
The gorgeous detail and flawless description often don’t add anything to the story, so a writer is left with no choice but to condense their narrative, and hopefully increase the pace in doing so. Otherwise, the narrative will drag in place of action.
The lesson here is to approach each chapter or scene with that same discerning, critical eye. If the scene doesn't truly advance the story in some meaningful way, or if the story can stand without it, then you might want to think about cutting the scene.
If it’s boring to write, it’s boring to read, so don't be afraid to cut certain aspects of your novel, even if you hold them dearly.
Overwriting & Simplicity
Someone I know wanted to write a thriller novel from the point of view of a psychologist, because they had a peaking interest in psychology. But their book editor ripped their manuscript apart, bringing attention to the areas that rambled and went off on tangents; unable to find their point – they realise now that they didn’t have one.
With this in mind, a story isn’t a good story, and most likely will never work, if you often stray from the point or begin writing without remembering your why.
When a writer chooses to write about a topic they are very unfamiliar with, like they did, it can lead to ‘overwriting’ in place of a good storyline. It creates useless filler, and strays from a lot of possible action.
So, try to stay focused and keep your language and description effective, but simple, and try not to overcompensate.
If you find yourself cutting chunks of backstory, scenes, chapters or even entire characters, you don't have to get rid of them completely, you can store everything away into a folder. Perhaps they could work better in a different story altogether, or simply act as a reference for you.
My point here is to keep the act of writing simple and enjoyable, plus easy for the reader to enjoy, and it helps tremendously to structure your manuscript before writing it. As a result, you're more likely to avoid ‘fluffing’ and using filler, as you'll know exactly what happens in each chapter.
Let it flow – Passive vs Active voice
As you probably know, it's important to be clear and concise in your writing. If something can be said effectively, you might want to remove the unnecessary filler.
For example, consider this sentence: "She extended her arm out to pick up her wine glass.”
The line above is a great example of useless filler being used in a sentence. We would know as the reader (you have to trust your readers as a writer!) that the woman would not be able to pick up her glass without extending an arm first, unless it has been stated at the beginning that the woman is disabled and has no arms.
Upon editing the text, the sentence would come back simple and precise, like the following: “She picked up her wine glass.”
See? Clear and concise, and still the same meaning. The visual is clear and it has eradicated the details that are not needed.
Trust your readers, because they don’t need to know all of those fluffy details that overkill your word count. Your readers will know how to pick up a wine glass without having to be explicitly told every joint movement in the characters arm.
Doing so will only ruin your readers' ability to fully immerse themselves in your novel, so try to use your active voice when writing to involve your readers in the story.
For example, passive can look like this: "I was hit by a bus."
Whereas active looks like this: "A bus hit me."
Can you see the dramatic change in the pacing? I know which sentence I’d rather read; the latter because it has fewer words, and the pacing is short and sharp.
Overcompensation and Condensing
In relation to both points above, long, lengthy sentences are a killer, and writers, especially new ones, often overcompensate by using them.
For example, an aspiring author may use fancy vocabulary in an attempt to show off their intelligence or brilliant writing skills, but sometimes, this only leads to overwriting.
Relating back to the thriller mentioned in the first point, they had many rambling sentences in their manuscript, and they admit to having no idea what they were writing about, they just wanted to show their knowledge at every given point, and to make each sentence better than the last!
Again, simple is better.
Think of your poor reader, what if they have to stop to think about your sentences because they can’t wrap their head around the meaning? How is your book ever going to flow if you keep letting your readers hit these roadblocks in your writing? Forcing your audience to halt all the time only takes them out of the story.
So, try your best to keep things as simple as possible. The message you want to convey is just as gripping in basic English than in some sort of Shakespearean-esque monologue, unless your novel is based around William Shakespeare, of course.
Condense your writing right down to the meat. Trim the fat. Let your readers have the good stuff and prevent them from fighting through long sentences and complex words to get to it.
However, I fully understand that condensing an entire novel can be a long, tedious process, especially for writers so emotionally involved in their story. And it's difficult to always identify which areas need more work, which parts would benefit from being cut, and which bits are fine as they are.
As a result, I'd strongly advise self-editing your manuscript after a decent break and returning when you can honestly say that there's enough distance between yourself and your work.
Afterwards, I'd also highly suggest hiring a professional book editor who can constructively critique your manuscript and offer advice on how to improve the weaker areas. Trust me, it can be a huge help to get a fresh, yet professional, eye on your work. Even as a book editor myself, I would never self-publish, or even query, a novel without hiring a book editor first.
Anyway, going back to the previous point, the cuts you make to your manuscript will reap significant rewards if you're successful. It’s a long road ahead, and writing takes a lot of patience and perseverance – let alone the editing stage. Practice makes perfect, nothing done right is ever innate.
Have faith in yourself and believe in your writing, and never give up on your craft, for it is a truly wonderful thing.
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!