Back in the fifth or sixth grade, I had the option of writing a story for a contest. Creative writing has been a love of mine since I was old enough to write my name, so I was in. Write a story – no problem. But there was a problem, and it was the word count. No more than 200 words. I think the only reason this has stuck with me is because of how ridiculous the word count seemed. My classmates groaned about the seeming impossibility of creating a story, no matter the length. To me, however, the limit of 200 words shot my dream of writing a winning story dead before I could even start.
In college, when I joined my first fiction workshop, I puzzled over how to write a story that was short enough. I struggled to shrink my first one to less than 20 pages, which I knew was problematic because the instructor read each story aloud during class. The day that a woman turned in a two-page story, I wondered how in the world it would amount to anything. Surely a two-page story would hardly be worth critiquing.
It was one of the best stories submitted that semester.
Eighteen years old, and I finally learned that longer is not necessarily better.
Of course, that’s not to say that I was unaware of being brevity-challenged. I’d heard about killing your darlings. I’d also heard of taking out the proverbial axe and chisel to finesse a piece of literary art. But my approach was always to write pell-mell on the first draft, then make sure the second draft was cut down by ten percent. The problem with this technique is that my first drafts are often much too long, and cutting ten percent is not enough. And when I started writing freelance, I had to learn how to hone my skills by writing articles with word limits.
It’s one thing to write a story and know that it needs to be around a certain length. It’s another to be assigned an article and know that you will be rejected if you go over 300 or 400 words. When I started writing articles for clients, I faced this challenge. And it turns out that I can write an article, prove a point, share an idea within a small space. A good thing, too, since many people will choose not to read an article if they see it runs onto a second page.
So, what then about novels? If you read my post last week, I complained (yes, I admit it) about my latest encounter with an agent. Her assignment was to help me fix problems with my novel’s opening, but when I submitted my excerpt to her with a note about how long my young adult manuscript was, I didn’t expect her to critique the novel’s length. But that’s just what she did. Cut it down by about 40,000 words, she said.
My first reaction was to be offended. Hadn’t she heard of Twilight, Eragon – Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, for crying out loud? These books blow average word counts out of the water. Granted, the first Harry Potter book was closer to what is considered normal, so by book five, J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted. But still, I thought, how do young adult authors break into the publishing world with longer-than-average novels?
Of course, my goal needs to be to make my novel the best it can be. Length isn’t the only factor, but it could be the one that consigns me to the slush pile yet again. While making my manuscript the best it can be, maybe I need to pull out the old axe again.
When I started editing my novel, although cutting words was a secondary goal, I was more concerned with making it clean and clarifying scenes that had confused my beta readers. But with my number one critique from the agent being the length (and after all, she does sell novels for a living, so I kind of have to lean toward her expertise on this one), I became hyper-aware of every word. I should have been making sure that each one counted from the beginning.
As of this post, I have cut almost 14,000 words – and I’ve added two scenes and am not even halfway through the book. There’s hope for me yet. If I can cut 30,000 words and make my prose shine, maybe there’s a chance that I’ll catch someone’s attention.
So, for those of you who don’t know where to start, here are some specifics:
- Choose your adverbs with great prejudice. Sometimes you can’t cut the adverb out and get your message across. Sometimes it means rewording a section to avoid adverb usage (and adjectives, too, but adverbs are the bigger culprit). As a writing exercise, write a scene with no descriptors at all. Challenging? You bet. You’re welcome.
- KISS (keep it simple, stupid). If you can make your point in three words, why use ten? Are you trying to impress someone with your use of words like “anthropomorphism” and “juxtaposition”? Give me a break. Likely, you’re only impressing yourself. Make your point, and move on.
- Read your prose aloud. This is especially important for dialogue. It’s also a great technique for discovering when you’re using the same word or phrase too often.
- Express yourself through punctuation. Need help? Check out Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style. You will be amazed by how much you can say without using words at all.
- If you haven’t already, buy copies of The Elements of Style, On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There are many, many others, but these will give you a great start.
- Kill your darlings. I’m so sorry. It could be that the line you’re most proud of is the one that needs to go. Once you start, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep cutting. If you’re afraid that you’ll regret your cuts, save each revision of your work as a separate document, so you can go back and put a line back in later if you decide you’d rather keep it.
- If you’re writing an article, make a rough outline. Although I like to be a free spirit when it comes to fiction, when writing articles, you need to have a clear direction for your key points. Then, if space allows, you can add flourishes later.
- Give your piece a rest. If there’s no hard deadline, take a vacation and work on something else for four to six weeks. You may find that something you thought integral to your manuscript before is unnecessary.
- Hire an editor. I’m not just trying to get more work for myself; if you are serious about making your manuscript publication-ready and feel you’re not up to the task yourself, that’s why we’re here.
These all come down to making sure that every word counts. If it doesn’t further your story or article, it’s got to go. Only then can you write a winning story in under 200 words – or cut thousands of words from your novel without compromising important scenes. I have confidence that you can, and I’m certainly going to try to do it, too.
Excellent advice. I always have a hard time admitting it when one of my darlings needs to die. In my heart, I know the truth, but I just don’t want to let go.
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