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Reducing the fat - part one


No, this isn't a promo post for some magic new weight loss program. Today I'm sharing ways to reduce your word count to make your writing as lean and compelling as possible.

When I first wrote this post, it was an epic 2,500 words, so I've decided to split it into three separate posts covering 9 ways to reduce your manuscript's flabbiness.

* * *

While writing my upcoming release, Last of the Summer Vines, I discovered something I never knew before: Microsoft Word stops counting words after you hit 100,000 words in a document. As a result, I have no idea how long a draft I first sent to my editor. Unsurprisingly, she asked me to reduce the book to under 100k words, a task which at the time seemed monumental. I was going to have to cut whole chunks of story to achieve it, wasn’t I?

As it happens, it’s not so hard to cut 10-15k from a book that length, and not only was I able to reduce my word count to under 100k, but I was even able to cut enough that I could flesh out other areas of the story.

How? By making my writing as lean as possible.

Lean writing is an art form, one that takes skill and practice to achieve. It's the kind of writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself, yet fills the reader with an unconscious awareness that they are in the hands of a skilled story teller. While ‘fat’ writing, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is wordy, repetitive, not getting straight to the point, and, worst of all, assumes the reader is an idiot who needs everything explained to them.

Most of us fall somewhere between the two, between the beautiful lean prose of F Scott Fitzgerald and the rather bloated prose of EL James's initial version of 50 Shades. Hopefully with each book under our belt, we edge closer and closer to the Fitzgerald end of the spectrum. (Which is why our first books, indulgent and bloated as they usually are, should never see the light of day! Those are our practice novels.)

So how do we reduce the fat in our novels? Here are 3 handy tips to use while you edit / revise your work, before you ever send it out to a critique partner, beta reader, or editor.

1. Contractions

This ‘rule’ was drummed into us in high school: don’t use contractions as it’s not ‘proper’ English. The problem with this is that novels, especially commercial fiction, are a conversation between the reader and writer. Not using contractions results in language that is stiff, formal and places the reader at a distance, rather than drawing them into the story.

For example:

“Do not sit on that chair,” she warned, but she did not speak in time. He had not noticed the broken leg, and the chair gave way beneath him. [29 words]

Sure, your high school English teacher would be proud, but your reader… not so much.

That sentence would flow much more easily through the reader’s mind if written as:

“Don’t sit on that chair,” she warned, but she didn’t speak in time. He hadn’t noticed the broken leg, and the chair gave way beneath him. [26 words]

Three words in a sentence might not seem to make much difference, but multiply that over 1,000 sentences, and you’ve cut 3,000 words throughout your novel!

Added bonus: your writing will seem less stilted, and the dialogue will sound more natural.

2. Dialogue: cut out the boring bits

A piece of advice frequently given to aspiring writers is to listen to the way people speak in real life, and to emulate it. But often the one giving that advice forgets to add the second part: then cut out all the boring bits.

A normal conversation overheard in a school playground might, for example, go like this:

Mom 1: Did you hear that the Smith family are moving during the holidays?

Mom 2: “No, I hadn’t. Where are they moving to?”

Mom 1: “They bought a house only one kilometer away from the school.”

Mom 2: “Oh, yes, that makes sense. Mrs. Smith often complains about how long they have to commute to get to school every day.”

Mom 1: “Yes, well, they’re moving next week, and I thought perhaps we should take some food around so they don’t have to try and cook the first night in the new house.”

Mom 2: “Good idea. Um… I can make a lasagna.”

Mom 1: “Okay, thanks, and I’ll bring salad and wine.”

[114 words]

Not riveting stuff, I know, but not exactly awful either, right? But if you want to be a leaner writer, that exchange would be much better written as:

Mom 1: “Did you hear the Smith family are moving during the holidays? They bought a house closer to the school.”

Mom 2: “That makes sense. Mrs Smith often complains about their long commute.”

Mom 1: “I thought we should take food around their first night in the house.”

Mom 2: “Great idea. I can make a lasagna.”

Mom 1: “I’ll bring salad and wine.”

[65 words]

Unless your ‘Um’s, ‘okay’s, ‘well’s and ‘yes’s are showing a specific hesitance in one of the characters, and you have purposefully placed them there, cut them out.

3. Dialogue: names

Following on from the advice given above, listen to how people speak in real life. Very, very seldom do we address each other by name – and this most especially applies when two people are in private conversation.

For example, imagine you and your partner are alone in the kitchen after dinner. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to speak like this:

“John, did you pack the plates in the dishwasher?”

“Yes, I have, Mary.”

Your husband will think you’ve gone crazy calling him by name when he’s the only person in the kitchen with you. Who else would you be talking to – the cat?

So if you're writing a direct conversation between two (or even three) characters, it would sound more natural like this:

“Did you pack the plates in the dishwasher?”

“Yes, I have.”

The reader, already knowing who is in the room, knows exactly what is going on, and doesn't feel as if they're being treated as if they're too dumb to follow, and added bonus: you've used fewer words!

Read the second post in this series, in which I share three more tips for reducing the flab in your manuscript.

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romy.writingcoach@gmail.com

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