How to Reduce Your Word Count

I recently posted on lessons I learned while editing. I mentioned my biggest lessons revolved around reducing my word count, but it deserved a separate post, so here it is. But first, some background.

When I first started getting back into writing through fanfiction, I averaged around 1,000 – 2,000 words per chapter. My first attempt at NANOWRIMO I limped to 50,000 words, resorting to writing an Author’s Note to finish my word count. As I progressed with my writing, my chapters started to grow in length, to 5,000 and even 10,000 words. I didn’t think much of it. Some of my favorites fics can range from 20,000 – 40,000 words per update, and I eagerly devour every word. So as my own word counts began to balloon, I wasn’t too concerned.

Then I started to seriously consider publishing my current WIP. After doing some research I learned the average maximum word count for fantasy from new authors was 120,000 words. I wasn’t very far into editing my first draft, but quickly realized I had a problem. The chapters I had edited were ranging from 7,000 – 10,000 words a piece. At roughly thirty chapters, it could easily turn into 150,000 – 300,000 words by the time I was done. Therefore, some drastic changes were needed. Even after those drastic changes, my WIP was still over 10,000 words too long. But, after some hard work, I eventually got it to 118,400 words.Below are what I did for those drastic changes, and the smaller ones to get my word count to it’s current form.

Narrow Your Focus

This was one of the first things I did. I realized they story may have revolved around six characters, but there were really just two main characters, who each had their own two side characters. It was hard, but I cut quite a bit of length simply skipping over the side character’s point of views, and summing up their important developments in a few sentences. It sounds short and simple to do, but ended up leading to my next tip below.

Rebuild Your Foundation

This was the second thing I did. My first draft was organized into two parts– Part I taking place in one time period, with Part II in another. My initial concept was to open with the big final battle and then go backwards, showing what led up to it.

It was a fun concept, but wasn’t working. The pacing in Part II was just too slow. Besides narrowing my focus on two characters, I restructured the entire novel. Instead of going backwards, I went forward with the chapters. Instead of beginning in one time period only to end in another, I alternated the two periods every other chapter.

I can’t say for sure how many words I reduced due to this method, but I did reduce the number of chapters by around seven, and by combining it with narrowing my focus, I can say it improved my story for the better.

Trim the Fat

It wasn’t until I was editing did I realize how many unnecessary words and phrases I insert into my writing. The most common culprits are ‘had’, ‘that’, ‘so’, and ‘once again’.

For example, take the following example sentence:

So, she then suddenly realized that he had been lying to her the entire time that she knew him.

By removing the excess words it could read:

She suddenly realized he’d been lying to her the entire time she knew him.

By trimming the excess words, I went from nineteen words to fourteen words. Five words may not seem like a lot, but by multiplying those five words by at least ten instances per chapter over twenty-five chapters, that’s over a thousand words which can be deleted easily.

This can also work by rephrasing sentences, or simplifying run-on sentences. It may not solve all of your word count issues, but it’s a good start, and usually is a better reading experience for the reader. The last thing you want is to have readers quit because they can’t stand your complicated sentence structure.

Remember to KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid

This phrased popped up a lot in college and my day job, but also applies to writing.

It can be as simple as saying in a few dozen words what you were saying in a few hundred. Established authors might be able to get away with pages of prose and backstory on scale with Tolkien, but new ones not so much. If you’re like me and like to write pages on backstory and details, you’re going to have cut some out. Just keep enough to set the mood or explain what the reader needs to know for the plot, but otherwise keep it simple.

This also applies with the number of chapters or scenes you might have. Instead of having Character A go to Point X with Character B to discover something then back to Point Y, before returning to Point X, try to reduce the plot. Ask yourself, does it really need to be this complicated? Or can you get the same plot developments with a fewer number of scenes?

By remembering to keep things simple, I reduced my number of scenes and sentences, and further reduced my length.

Make Every Scene and Word Count

If you’re really attached to a scene or chapter, make it count. Show some character development that can’t be shown elsewhere, reveal an important plot detail, include foreshadowing, set up a future event. Ask yourself, why the scene or sentence is important and what it adds to the story? Can it be removed without the story losing anything important?

If you can’t come up with an answer to the first question, or the answer is no to the second, them delete it. As painful as it might be, if it’s not further serving your story or plot, then it should be removed.

It Can be a Painful Process…

Deleting parts of your story can be painful. Whether it’s the countless hours of backstory and world-building that’s now reduced to a single sentence, your favorite line of dialogue or character now gone, deleting parts of your story can suck.

If you’ve exhausted all other avenues and are still a few thousand words too high, you might have to resort to axing your favorite parts. When it comes to doing that, copy the parts into a different document so they’re not completely gone. You can always reread them later. Then remember, if your ultimate goal is to get published and the only way to do that is by reducing your word count, the pain will be worth it in the end.

…But It Can Also be Gratifying

One of my best days of editing was reducing a chapter which was close to 11,000 words originally, to under 5,000. The sections I deleted were unnecessary, wordy, and could have been added elsewhere. Being able to cut the chapter in half was a great feeling.

When I saw my final word count of 118,400, 1,600 words under 120,000 I felt ecstatic. All of my hard work paid off and made the countless worth it. My current draft has come a long way from its origins, and I’m proud of its current state.

That’s it for now. Let me know if you have your own tips to reduce length, or if any of these helped you out.

— Kay S. Beckett

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