Rewriting: Tightening Your Word Count

When a drafted novel is in the “hot mess” stage, the word count may exceed original expectations. Many times, this problem boils down to the sentence and paragraph level, where repetition, overexplaining and unnecessary description inflates the total word count. But you can fix it!

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about ways to trim excess word count in your novel or memoir.

Don’t Repeat the Obvious

My students often end up with bloated scenes and chapters when they repeat descriptions of everyday objects or things most readers will easily recognize. An object such as a frying pan conjures a familiar image, so it’s not necessary to keep describing the pan unless it has some special significance to the story. Read more about this on Nate Bransford’s blog.

A mentor of mine used to call going to abstract terms to describe the familiar as “smoking materials.” If you write that a character lights a cigarette, don’t bend over backwards thinking of alternate names. And if you write, “He took a drag,” avoid repeating of the cigarette (or smoking materials!) Readers will understand that the character isn’t taking a drag off a shoe.

The prepositional phrases inserted to make sure readers know it was a cigarette and not a cigar or vape pen, feel redundant after you establish the object. Sure you could switch it up and call it a cancer stick, a Marlboro or another slang term, but avoid repeating the object when readers already know what it is.

Prepositional Overload

As I said above, prepositional phrases can add considerable word count to your work. If you’re not sure what a preposition is, get out your Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or google it. When you write that she put her hat on her head, you’re wasting words. Where else would she put a hat? You can write simply, “She put on her hat.”

Likewise, be on the lookout for prep phrases that don’t add to the scene or are redundant. Your guiding rule should be that once you’ve described or oriented readers to the scene, you don’t have to keep reminding them. Avoid sentences such as, “She opened the door to the house, walked into the house and entered the living room of the house.” Readers are smart, so once she’s at the door, they’ll know it’s a house.

Another idea to trim excess prepositional phrases is to use possessives. Instead of “She entered the living room of the house,” you can write, “She entered the house’s living room.” If readers aren’t quite sure where the character is or if there are several possibilities, these possessives can help clarify without the prepositions.

Avoid redundant prepositional phrases.

Avoid Overexplaining

Even body parts can start to sound silly when writers work too hard. If you go to the trouble to write, “She extended her arm in the direction of the broken window,” you could save words by writing, “She pointed to the window.” Most of the time you can spot places to trim by noting the change in tone. The abstract words extended, direction don’t match the rest of the sentence or the character’s voice. The bigger the word, the more likely you’re overexplaining.

When situating characters in space, it’s not necessary to tell readers about every turn or stand they make. If your character is sitting, writing, “She stood and walked across the room,” overexplains. Just say she walked across the room. Readers will get that she had to stand up before walking.

The same goes for turns. Unless you’ve deliberately set characters back-to-back, writing that they turned to face each other is usually unnecessary. I see work that insists the characters are always turning to do this or to say that. Readers will understand that most of the time, we look at each other when we interact.

Overexplaining in dialogue is also a waste of words. My rule is that characters do not speak to each other with information that each already knows. If two characters are conversing, one will not say, “Hey Mike are you going to work today at the Finkle Gum Ball Factory down on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Main Street?” Both characters surely know where Mike works. Overexplaining for the author’s convenience only bloats your sentences and paragraphs.

How can you begin to slim down your work today?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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