7 ways to cut a novel without losing anything important

2009_1101oct09chillingham0030‘Help, an agent has told me I need to cut 25,000 words from my novel!’ I get a lot of emails like this – from writers understandably wondering where on earth to start.

What is too long?

In commercial publishing there are accepted lengths for books, ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 according to genre and audience. These conventions are created as much by the economics of distribution as reader preference, but they are pretty entrenched and can be dealbreakers. And if you’re self-publishing a monster epic in print, you might start to understand how paperback costs escalate as those pages pile up.

Too long for who?

You’re right. A book should be the length it deserves. As a reader, that’s what I want. As an editor, that’s what I strive for. And here’s the good news: I usually find when I tackle a manuscript that there’s enough redundancy to fillet the wordcount easily and painlessly. When I edited My Memories of a Future Life for publication, I found I’d been a bit generous and meandering. My ruthless eye took it from 152k words to 102k. Yes, with all the important story elements still intact.

So before you sacrifice a subplot, extract a much-loved set of characters, look at this list. It might do all the cutting you need.

1 Have you crammed too much of your research in? You need a lot of research to get comfortable with a subject, geographical area, historical period or life situation, but you don’t need all that in the book. And I see a lot of writers who can’t decide what to leave out. Or they’ve got carried away inventing atmospheric details, and have brought the story to a standstill (like my friend in the picture). Whenever you’re introducing details for this reason, consider whether the story has stopped for them. Choose just a few to make your point, and keep the rest for deleted scenes to delight your fans – seriously, you will make good use of this material and it’s never wasted.

sidebarcrop2 Examine your descriptions for extraneous adjectives and adverbs. Often writers pile on several when one will do – ‘thick black hair’, ‘brilliant bright moonlight’. Sometimes they use a simile when a more exact verb would be crisper – ‘he threw panicky punches like a child’ might be better as ‘flailed’. (It might not be, of course. Fiction isn’t like instructions for plumbing a washing machine. Sometimes the luxuriant description suits your needs.)

3 Throat-clearing before the meat of a scene. Sometimes a writer seems to be warming up before they get to the important part of a scene. They might footle around with unnecessary details and internal dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to neuter all the atmosphere and panache, but ask yourself if you’re stating points we’ve already grasped, or if you could wind the scene forwards and start further in.

4 Watch for dialogue that is going nowhere. Often, characters dither and chit-chat before their dialogue gets interesting. Can you start at that point and still keep it natural?

5 Make your characterisation scenes do double duty. Scenes that display character traits, attitudes and relationships are very necessary, but they can be static. Can you incorporate them in a scene that also pushes the plot forwards?

6 Take out all the back story (don’t panic; we’re going to put some of it back in). Writers often cram in far too much back story. Like research, you don’t need to display nearly as much as you’ve prepared. Consider what the reader needs to know at each stage of the story and what you could reveal in more dynamic ways – eg scenes where characters bond by sharing a confidence.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersml7 Make a beat sheet. This is – and probably always will be – my pathfinder through a novel. Briefly, it’s an at-a-glance plan of the novel that shows the entire structure and the emotional beats. It has lots of uses, but if you need to shorten a book it will show where scenes are repeating parts of the story that you’ve already covered, or scenes that could be spliced together and achieve the same purpose. It’s explained at greater length in Nail Your Novel (original flavour)

NEWSFLASH This Wednesday I’m speaking at the GetRead online conference, which is all about marketing strategies for writers. Other speakers include authors Joanna Penn, James Scott Bell, Bella Andre, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth S Craig, Barbara Freethy, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, the literary agents Rachelle Gardner and Jason Allen Ashlock, book marketing experts and entrepreneurs Dan Blank and Kristen McLean, industry commentator Porter Anderson, and senior figures from Goodreads, Wattpad and Tumblr. It’s online, so you can join from your armchair. More here (and in the meantime, wish me luck – I had no idea it was so big!)

Back to important matters….

Do you have any tips for cutting without sacrificing story elements? Have you had to hack several thousand words out of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Joe Niemczura, RN, MS on November 10, 2013 - 10:08 pm

    I am still editing my own work in progress, but I did a passthrough to search for and eliminate all use of passive voice, and it slimmed the thing down by 8% right there. and the plot etc remained the same. and it read better.

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 8:43 am

      Passive voice – Joe, how could I forget that? Spot-on. Thank you!

      • #3 by Joe Niemczura, RN, MS on November 12, 2013 - 4:48 pm

        Thanks! And it is all made easier by doing a “find” for – a) the word “had been”. B) the postfix “-ing” c) “could have” d) “was going” e) anything with “was”

        These are all very practical examples of what constitutes passive, but there are more. What happens is, the actions take on a “zing” but if it’s well done, the average reader can’t quite put their finger on why that is so.

        • #4 by Robert on November 17, 2013 - 11:37 am

          Thanks for sharing those searches, Joe. Spot on!

  2. #5 by Tony McFadden (@Tony_McFadden) on November 10, 2013 - 10:29 pm

    Oh, this is timely. I’ve decided to adapt my latest book for the screen. It’s my shortest novel to date (~72,000 words), but if I were to take the manuscript and just format it as a screenplay it would result in a movie almost ten hours long (using the standard “one page = one minute on the screen” rule of thumb).

    So I sliced and diced and combined scenes and basically followed all of your steps, except 7. Act 1 has been reduced to 30 pages – from an initial 150, and does everything an Act 1 needs to – sets up the characters and situations needed for Acts 2 and 3. I think that was the easy one.

    So after NaNo – when I have some time to get back to it, I think the beat sheet will be the next step. It should help clarify things.

    • #6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 8:46 am

      Hi Tony! Wow, mammoth task. As you say, most novels are far too long for screenplays – and 72k isn’t even a long novel. And they require a different set of storytelling tools because they’re predominantly visual. What an exciting project. All the best with it!

  3. #7 by acflory on November 10, 2013 - 11:47 pm

    I used to waffle. There, I’ve said it. I was convinced I couldn’t possibly tell a story in under 120K words. Then I started using StoryBox [very similar to Scrivener] and the inherent structure of writing in scenes and chapters worked the miracle Word could not achieve. First novel – 90K words. And this is coming from a pantster who can’t outline.

    In thinking back, I believe it’s the continuous nature of writing in Word that made me waffle so much. As a pantster I ‘see’ the story in bright flashes, but often the bits in between are grey or black. I don’t know what’s meant to go there but I have to get from one bright spot to the next so I try to cobble something for the inbetween bits. And those bits meander. A lot.

    Now I write the bits I can see clearly and move on because I know I can a) fill in the missing bits later and b) rearrange the structure of the chapters and scenes very easily [not some you can easily do in Word].

    I’m now a passionate convert to writing software. :)

    • #8 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 8:51 am

      AC, I had a length problem whenever I tried short stories. I’d start with one idea and my brain would make it at least 6k. It was hopeless for submitting to magazines or competitions. Then I started novels instead and that seemed much better for my brain. But I digress from your excellent tale here.
      How interesting that a change in writing format made such a difference.I think I get a similar effect by planning the novel on cards – I can see the gaps, but I have to make each of the joins count as a good scene in its own right. It leaves little room for meandering. Apparently this is what Scrivener does as well, but I prefer to have a fat marker pen and cards!

      • #9 by acflory on November 13, 2013 - 12:18 pm

        Re length – I could never write short stories either – until I learned to write decent length blog posts! And I must admit I read a brilliant short story that finally made the little light bulb go off in my head. Until then I’d never really understood why you would even /want/ to write a short story.

        The way you describe your cards ‘feels’ very similar to how I view my scenes/chapters in StoryBox – as you say, the connecting scenes have to pull their weight instead of being dead words. I guess we’re more similar than I thought. ;)

        • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 13, 2013 - 12:57 pm

          Does this mean plotting vs pantsing is calling a truce? :)

          • #11 by acflory on November 14, 2013 - 12:41 am

            -grin- I believe so. ;) To be honest I think the only real difference between pantsters and plotters is the point at which the ‘plotting’ begins. I don’t start with a plot but I cannot finish without investing a lot of time and effort into creating a reason for my characters and their story. That reason is a plot, no matter how you label it. And creating a decent plot requires plotting. :D

  4. #12 by mgm75 on November 11, 2013 - 10:07 am

    Thanks for this Ros! I’m going through this with my own novel right now and after quibbling for weeks, decided to cut out an entire 5000 word chapter. I liked it when first written but on this current read through it feels weak. Though relevant to the end, taking it out may even make the end feeling stronger by adding the element of a “pleasant surprise”.

    • #13 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 8:59 am

      Hi mgm! ‘Taking it out made the ending feel stronger’ – I love it when that happens. But you had to try the book with that extra chapter to realise.
      I hope you kept the excised chapter – some of it might be useful for your ‘extras’.

      • #14 by mgm75 on November 12, 2013 - 10:03 am

        The scrapped chapter had three *parts* to it. I kept two parts in case I can use it in something else. The other part I doubt I could do anything with because it’s very specific to the novel’s basic premise.

  5. #17 by Daniel R. Marvello on November 11, 2013 - 2:40 pm

    Those are excellent tips. I’m still in first draft mode on my WIP, but I’ll keep this post in mind for revision time.

    My only addition to this list is to follow your gut regarding scenes that feel weak. If you aren’t happy with a scene, step back and figure out what you were originally trying to accomplish. Is there a better way to reveal the plot point or character trait? Can you ditch the scene entirely and incorporate the good stuff from it into other scenes?

    I’ve used your items 5 and 7 to help me strengthen weak scenes or to disassemble them and incorporate their best bits elsewhere in the story. As you say, every scene should move the story forward, and a beat sheet gives you invaluable perspective for scene surgery.

    • #18 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 9:05 am

      Hey, Daniel! Excellent point about gut reaction. We often have this primal feeling that something isn’t right, though we don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes, like mgm above, we need to remove the scene and the feeling of relief tells us we did the right thing. Sometimes, it needs editing rather than removing.
      The feeling gets more reliable the more you use it – as you obviously find. And structure can solve so much – as you well know because you’re a process nerd like me!

  6. #19 by change it up editing on November 11, 2013 - 2:42 pm

    When I’m editing, I often find sentences here and there that don’t serve any purpose (no vital information, don’t move the story forward, etc.). One or two might not make much difference, but if there are several in every scene of a 100,000 word manuscript, the word count adds up quickly.

    These are great tips–I’m sharing!

    • #20 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 9:10 am

      Thanks, Editors! It’s very useful to have editing as one of your disciplines. Although you can get yourself into a knot of discontent if you try to write and edit at the same time, when you’re used to taming the work of others it definitely helps.

  7. #21 by writerchick on November 11, 2013 - 5:24 pm

    I don’t have any trouble cutting out the fat in a story – maybe because I also work as a freelance copywriter I’m used to being edited and looking for the extra bits that don’t matter.

    However, one thing I always do in the first draft is over-write, I just let myself meander, throw in too much back story, let the characters have gab-fests, etc. For me, it makes the rewriting easier. Is that weird? Probably.

    There are little tricks you can do that will reduce your word count, search for the word ‘that’ and you’ll find that you can delete most of them, search for words ending in ly – the deadly adverbs, root out all the passive language and replace it with active, etc. But for me, what works is just asking myself questions “is this pertinent to the story?” “does this move the plot forward?” “is this something the reader needs to know?”

    Writers love words and sometimes we love our own words a little too much – but once you realize (as you pointed out) that none of that ‘extra’ stuff needs to be wasted, then I think it’s easier to take out the scissors and snip where necessary.

    Good post.

    Annie

    • #22 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 9:14 am

      Writerchick – yes, as I was saying to Change It Up above, when you’re used to the editing mindset you don’t find it so difficult to spot your own mistakes.
      I’m with you about the first draft – I let the characters and story ramble, like leaving the camera rolling to see how far the actors will go once they’re warmed up. You can get to surprising places if you push them to go on a bit longer.
      Good point about searches too. It also helps to search for the ‘stuffing’ words that don’t mean much, like ‘somehow’. I find ‘just’ appears in my drafts rather more than it needs to. (And ‘rather’…)

  8. #25 by Deb Atwood on November 11, 2013 - 7:43 pm

    I agree with everything, especially trimming adverbs. As Mark Twain said, ” Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

    Another great place to look for places to cut is the middle. So many books–even from established authors–have a compelling opening and a satisfying finish, but bog down in the middle.

    I cut 12k from my novel (turns out for newish authors, 90k is the new 100k), tightening line by line and page by page. It wasn’t fun, but I was pleased with the finished product.

    • #26 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 12, 2013 - 9:17 am

      Hi Deb! Ah, the ‘damn’ trick – thanks for including that! And middles can be a nightmare. The best way I’ve found to solve this is to have an actual midpoint, instead of a long second act – essentially 4 acts rather than 3. That keeps the middle focused because it has somewhere to go.

      • #27 by Daniel R. Marvello on November 12, 2013 - 2:08 pm

        Light bulb! What a great way to look at 4-part structure: it gives you a middle with somewhere to go. Thanks for that insight.

      • #28 by Deb Atwood on November 12, 2013 - 5:01 pm

        Hi Roz,

        So you would define the four acts as call to action, crisis, climax, resolution?

        • #29 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 13, 2013 - 1:01 pm

          I think I prefer to look for the turning points between acts, where the story changes direction. So 1 becomes 2 when something has changed irrevocably. 2 becomes 3 when there’s another change that makes it all a lot more serious. 3 hurtles into 4 when it’s all as horribly wrong as could be.

  9. #30 by American Gypsy Gibberish on November 11, 2013 - 11:30 pm

    Reblogged this on American Gypsy GIbberish and commented:
    I came across this post via Twitter and had to share. While the thought of trimming that many words from any WIP gives me palpitations, the advice is wonderful and in my very humble opinion – spot on.

    I hope you enjoy this post as muchdas I did!

  10. #32 by esthermcgreevy on November 12, 2013 - 12:52 am

    Roz, your words arrive timed to my needs. Thank you ♥

  11. #34 by Sabrina on November 12, 2013 - 10:07 am

    Thank you for this, Ive seen some of what youve highlihted in my own writing. But Ive learnt a good deal along the way, I’ve found reading aloud shows up a lot of needless words. Also if you re-read what youve written and are not interested in certain parts of your own manuscript I’m 95% sure no one else will be. Listening to the ‘niggles’ are just as important, as listening out for what works.

    • #35 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 13, 2013 - 1:03 pm

      Sabrina, I also find reading aloud incredibly helpful. Especially if the receiving ears belong to your writer husband, who you know is running a very efficient head-edit.

  12. #36 by Carol Riggs on November 12, 2013 - 7:12 pm

    These are super tips! I have no trouble trimming; in fact, I like it. It’s a nice challenge. I’m not usually waaaay verbosely wordy, not like 50K words (wow, I’m impressed you were able to hack that much; congrats). I’ve made suggestions for slashing on my critique partners’ wandering mss too–using pretty much the ideas from your list. Usually what needs to go are descriptions or actions that don’t add to the plot. Like, what’s this detailed part about how to clean a goldfish tank got to do with anything? (I made that up, but yeah, stuff like that.)

    • #37 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 13, 2013 - 1:08 pm

      Ho ho, Carol, I love the goldfish example. It’s just the kind of thing that you write because you’re digging your way into the characters’ world and a scene, but you realise later is total fluff.
      With Future Life, I realised I had quite a lot of exploratory stuff, which is what eventually was removed. I did the same with Lifeform Three, though not at such length. Now with The Mountains Novel, I’m writing a lot of exploration, but it’s in notes files, carefully indexed.

      • #38 by Carol Riggs on November 13, 2013 - 3:17 pm

        Yep, sometimes that exploratory stuff is necessary! (easier to write it all and THEN cut, selecting the best parts) I wrote a prologue for my WIP that I’ve since ditched; it was important for me but not readers. Best of luck and creativity with your Mountains Novel!! :)

  13. #39 by Call Me Dani on November 14, 2013 - 3:00 am

    Reblogged this on Just a Little Innocent and commented:
    This has such good ideas in it. You should definitely check it out =).

  14. #41 by Robert on November 17, 2013 - 11:37 am

    Totally timely, Roz!

    Just finished structural edits for Book 2 (a shout-out for beat sheets, yay!), and now I need to ‘lose some weight’.

    I had everything so tightly structured (down to scenes-sequel etc) that it all makes sense when I read it. Time for beta readers to see if the pace is okay–while I get on with all of the above (search for passive; weasel-words; my own habitual repeated phrases; unnecessary sentences).

    But I’m having trouble seeing any scenes that can be deleted … any advice to be ruthless? What I should look for?

    • #42 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on November 18, 2013 - 10:20 am

      Hey, Robert! If the beat sheet hasn’t identified any scenes that repeat, pay attention to your own engagement when reading. If you feel a scene is getting a tad boring, do you need it? It may not need to go altogether; perhaps the problem is pacing. But the chances are, you’ve done all you can and you now need to get comments from your readers!

      • #43 by Robert on November 18, 2013 - 11:04 am

        Thanks so much Roz!

        Yep, the beat sheet had no repeated scenes (some where the emotion or tension wasn’t as pacy as I would have liked, but I’ve fixed those). I find it hard, being so close to the text, as to what actually is pacy/fun/engaging, so I think you are right. Now is a good time to give to my trusted pre-readers for feedback!

        I’m such a newbie that I really can’t tell if there’s too much fat or not (and self-published, so no agent/publisher to force me haha!).

        I appreciate your support!

  15. #44 by Bill McCurry on December 27, 2013 - 7:41 pm

    Roz, thank you for these tips! I wrote a 180K word monster a few years ago (before I read your books). Although I liked it a lot, the length made me shelve it. I just finished editing it down to 103K words, and I don’t think I butchered it in the process. Besides the things you mentioned, I dropped a couple of sub-plots, and I also looked for characters to combine so they can do double-duty. Although it hurt, I looked hard at the things I loved best, and many of them ended up cut. I loved them, but they didn’t help the story. Thanks again!

    • #45 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on December 28, 2013 - 3:41 pm

      Hi Bill! Cutting characters, culling favourite bits… you just have to view those as transition periods that helped you create the final version. And 190k to 103k is very impressive…

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