Friday, June 23, 2017

Tips To Reduce Word Count

I am wordy. Like, really wordy. And I know I'm not alone. Admit it. We love our word play a little too much sometimes. As a friend of mine loves to put it, we like to smell our own farts.

So what do you do when you've finished your masterpiece, and you come to your senses about making someone slog through 500 pages of your drivel that you would be forced to price at $20?

Lots of well meaning bloggers (says the well meaning blogger) will tell you to eliminate damn near everything extraneous. Like we all must be Elmore Leonard clones.

Not to dismiss the late Mr. Leonard by any means. I just dislike the use of absolutes in his personal rules. There are many other variations on "Never do x" advice that make me cringe. For me, there's something to be said about strategically slowing the pace, or setting the cadence of your word flow, so don't feel obligated to cut every last damn adjective.

That said, a lot of what you wrote is probably expendable.

Major Pruning

For when you’ve gone 15K over your allowed word count, or you feel your finished novel is just way too long (like mine was).

1. Examine side journeys and subplots 

This can be the toughest one. Most great books are more memorable for their character moments, not their plots. We LOVE our characters. We don't want to neglect them, right?

But if it doesn’t advance your plot, it’s probably not necessary. If it develops your setting and your characters, it MAY be worth keeping, but not if it ends up feeling like filler. This may require a bit of untangling if the subplot is referenced a lot or had indirect impact on the main plot. But it will by far reduce more pages than nitpicking individual words.

2. Lose anything self-serving

You know that part that you’re just SOOOO proud of? That witty banter, that hysterical zinger, that esoteric reference that the hipsters in your audience will love. That moment when your words danced and your brilliance leapt off the page for the critics to marvel at. 

Yeah it probably sucked.

One pitfall along these lines is a compulsion by some to make political commentary. Assuming we're talking about non-political fiction, no one wants to read that crap. Especially not in our current cultural climate.

Sometimes a character’s politics is a defining element worth mentioning, but more likely it comes across as preachy to 40% of your potential audience. Ask yourself, does it add value to the story, or is it virtue signaling? Is it really worth risking a 1 star review?

3. Shorten descriptions

This is one where I definitely agree Elmore Leonard. Did you really need all those lines to describe that woman’s hair? Does the reader need THAT much detail about your character’s car? Or that store window? Did the bad guy’s ensemble really warrant a whole paragraph in his introduction? Probably not.

4. Minimize Exposition

Here's another one where I'll quote from Leonard's rules: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." A beta reader once described one of my chapters as drinking from a fire hose of exposition. Handled badly, exposition can be a pacing killer, and a waste of words.

Lean toward having actions reveal the background of your story. If you took a whole paragraph to explain something that becomes obvious later by what your characters say and do, you can probably cut it out.

Edge Trimming

For when you’ve formatted your book for print and you end up with a bunch of widows, orphans, and hanging chads (paragraphs with one tiny word on a line by itself). Or the end of your chapter goes all the way to the end of the page. Or for when you just want to ratchet things up and/or quicken the pace.

1. Beware filler words

Pretty much any word ending in –ly.
pretty much
around or about (as adjectives)
any verb followed by have or not (contractions are your friends)

2. Rework sentences that take the scenic route

Any time a character did this, then that:
... looked up and ...
... turned around and ...
... felt something happen
... saw something happen
... heard something happen
(unless conveying a sense of detachment from the action is important to the scene)

On a smaller scale, keep an eye out for ways to use words more economically. For example, reduce "get a message to me" to "reach me" or "dropped me off at home" to "took me home."

3. Shorten dialogue

Read the lines out loud and imagine yourself watching the scene play out in a movie. Are you having trouble following it? Are you bored by the end? Your reader will be, too. 

One thing I did quite a bit was combine short one liners into a longer quote. It’s good for rounding up orphans, and it often makes the exchange flow more naturally.

4. Sidebar: Adding lines

Sometimes your solution to widow/orphan control is to add a line. Maybe you have a paragraph that is way too long (7 lines is a good max). A sentence at the end of a paragraph may deserve to be on its own line as a tension builder.

I guarantee there are more. What are the things you put on the chopping block in your final draft?