When your work in progress is too long, as in WAY too long, how does a writer slice and dice words that are just shy of precious?
A client who gave me permission to share this but will remain anonymous was faced with such a task recently. Several days later, a prospective client realized that the length of her novel would have put War and Peace to shame. Both authors could not imagine shortening their work any more than they already had.
My client said, “I’m staring at all these words not knowing how to do that. I feel kind of like a surgeon slicing, dicing, stitching back together…a word surgeon who didn’t go to medical (or writing) school. Any ‘Cynthia’s Tips and Tricks’ for slicing and dicing without cutting any major arteries?”
Slice and Dice. Sounds painful, doesn’t it? Let’s dive into how we can make the process as pain-free as possible.
Overall Slice and Dice Tips:
- Have you read the manuscript aloud or had someone read it to you? Doing so will reveal passages that bog down, grow sluggish, or where even you as the author grow disinterested. Those are good spots to carefully examine for paragraphs, a scene, dialogue exchange, or an entire chapter can be excised. (Save what’s removed in a separate file. It may come in handy for a guest blog post, podcast point, or radio interview.)
- Unintentional repetition bores the reader and then morphs into aggravating the reader. “Does the author not know I got it the first three times he said it?”
- If it’s necessary to repeat a concept or thought, have you done so in a new, fresh way? If not, it will do more damage than good.
- Does every section, every chapter, every paragraph fit the overarching theme of the book? Or is it a rabbit trail? In writing, anything that interrupts the journey is more like a mental traffic jam than a side trip with pretty scenery.
- Rather than focusing on how many words you need to lose, start eliminating anything unnecessary and watch the word count drop as if by magic. Watch for “filler” words or expressions that may feel quite natural but slow down the pace and flow of the book. Start with the obvious–so, oh, well, you know, now, of course, in order to, you see, what I mean is… You’ll find even old standbys like and and the are often habit rather than essential. The trees bent over the creek bed and darkened the creek’s flow with the shade they proved vs. Trees bent over the creek bed, shading its flow.
- What spots feel like they’re singing, but a little off key? You may find it’s easy to delete that section in favor of the sections or sentences or even single words that “raise a hallelujah.”
Nonfiction-specific Slice and Dice:
- Start with the big picture. What’s the goal of the book? And who is the potential reader? Keep asking, “Will this matter to the reader?” If the answer is no, it may belong in your journal but not in your book.
- With every detail ask, “Am I including this because it will help the reader understand or because I personally found it fascinating?” Or “Is this necessary or over-the-top/excessive/veering away from the book’s overarching message?”
- Which of the stories, examples, or anecdotes would resonate most deeply with the reader? It’s not like having to give up a child for adoption and choose between which of the twins have to go. You get to keep both children. One shows up in this book. One in another. 🙂
- Does this information belong in a different book? Important and true, but for another project, not this one?
- When you’re looking for what will make your book leaner but stronger, watch for places where you as the author may be stepping onto the scene, pointing fingers, offering opinions rather than supportable fact, or shining a spotlight on yourself. If the text includes “I want you to” or “You need to” or “Now, listen to me” or “I think,” try the sentence without those phrases. “I want you to take a good look at how often your thoughts turn toward anger rather than problem-solving.” That sentence is actually stronger if it reads, “Take a good look at how often your thoughts turn toward anger rather than problem-solving.” Leaving out “I want you to” actually improves and punctuates importance.
Fiction-specific Slide and Dice:
- Are the characters saying the same thing over and over? “Yes, but if I can’t save the family farm…” “I have to save the family farm.” “What will I do if I can’t save the family farm?” Creativity is part of your toolbox. Find new ways of underscoring the need. “This farm’s legacy dies if I make the wrong move here.” “How many hundreds of years has a Hodgson watched the sun rise over that field?” “Is this why I was put on this earth? To ensure that this soil is always tended by someone who cares about the stories lived out within the boundaries of these acres?” Use creativity to your advantage. Your readers will appreciate it. Catch those repeated phrases, creatively reword some of them, and eliminate the rest. Your reader will already be conscious of the emotional impact if you’ve set up the story well. They’ll feel what you don’t have to say. The reader can “watch” the character react and even imagine how the character would respond to the action.
- It may not seem like much of a word count reduction, but every bit helps. Look for speaker attributions or action beats that are unnecessary. If the reader is clearly locked into the scene, you may need far fewer speaker attributions than you assume.
- If you are way over your word count–and even if you aren’t–evaluate every subplot. Does it enhance, intensify, or contribute something significant to the primary plot? If not consider eliminating that subplot. That by itself may solve your word problems.
- Where do you find yourself thinking, “The reader doesn’t need to be told that. It’s obvious to them,” or “The reader will BEST be able to put herself into THIS scene, not THAT one”?
- Is there an entire scene that you can delete without consequences? If you can, do. But save it for the treasured “deleted scene” lead magnet novelists are often searching for.