Word Counts Part Two: How to Trim

Remember when we were talking about how to write for a specific Word Count limit?  Yeah, neither do I.  It’s been a long month, mostly because I started a new day job.  (In case you were wondering why the #MFM Contest winners were posted later than advertised.)

Anyway, refresh yourself by reading Part One and then continue below for Part Two.  Also, note that most of this advice is going to be geared toward Short/Flash Fiction where you have to stay within the bounds of a certain word count.  It will always be easier to write to a designated word count limit than to trim a piece you’ve already written without serious revision.

And yet, it can be done.

I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.

– Stephen King, On Writing

I think most drafts can lose about 10 – 15% of its word count without sacrificing content.  Personally, I don’t freak out if I’m 100 – 150 words over the word count when I finish a 1,000 limit.  I know that I write in a meandering sort of way – I can cut a paragraph’s worth of words just by trimming my sentences one by one.

Anything more than that and I know that it won’t help to switch every “was wondering” to “wondered” – I’ll still need to trim a scene or cut a paragraph, maybe even lose an extraneous character who isn’t contributing much.

So how do you do that?

1.) Lists.  Oh sweet reader learn to love your lists.  List your characters.  List your scenes.  List your plot points in order.  Anything that’s taking up space, write it down.  Then take a break and come back to your lists looking for things that stick out.  Do you really need all those characters?  Does your subplot tie into the main theme?  If you had to write your story all over again from scratch what absolutely, positively has to make it into the final cut for it to say what you want to say?  That’s your bare bones outline.  Anything else is filler.

2.)  Focus and simplify. Cut out anything you listed that is distracting or that doesn’t contribute to your overall theme.  One way to do this is to limit your scenes/dialogue to two people whenever possible to save on dialogue tags.

3.) Read every sentence and look for wayward phrasing.  “Get out!” Sarah shouted angrily might’ve seemed just fine when you were in the zone but you know better than that.  And if you’ve cut characters you can trim dialogue tags here.  Watch out for unnecessary adjectives. Do you really need to say “he turned the knob, opened the door and left” or can you just say that he left?  Trust your reader and tighten your prose.

4.) Use Beta Readers.  Find someone (preferably more than one) whose opinion you trust. They don’t have to be a writer, but they do have to be a reader.  Someone who understands stories, someone who will help point out things that are extraneous, and things that don’t make sense (if you go too crazy in your subsequent drafts and start cutting out important details.)  I owe one of my betas a serious debt of gratitude for catching some major issues with a second draft.

Remember: every word counts.

Got any tips for how to trim?  Leave them in the comments below!



4 thoughts on “Word Counts Part Two: How to Trim

  1. A 10% cut seems in line with what I have found when I revise a first draft.

    Most of the time, “filtering” words like saw, heard, felt are not needed. For example, He heard cats howling outside -> Cats howled outside

    Your post on description is also a good one. Don’t spend time describing the obvious or feel the need to give too many details.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a terrible rambler with my first draft. Everything is this AND that. I had to learn to pick the stronger of the two actions and let the other drop. It’s not the worst mistake to make but when it happens every other sentence it’s grating to read.

      Liked by 1 person

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