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Edit Your Novel Down to Required Word Count

Updated on March 26, 2010

So you've written a super duper masterpiece the length of Don Quixote. Guess what? Unless you're uber famous already, few literary agents, and fewer publishers, are going to read it. Why? Cos it's too long! Epic sagas are very risky for publishers because they cost more money to produce and are more expensive to buy -- if no one knows you, they are less likely to buy your epic than, say, the next Harry Potter novel. And besides, you're 160k novel could probably do with some paring down anyway. Really. I know. I've been there. So let me give you some advice on editing it down to the required genre word count.

Step One: Get rid of all the crap that isn't relevant.

My latest book is a romantic comedy. It was 160k when I finished it. Guidelines are set around 90k max, with some exceptions because it's mainstream, which can go above 100k and maybe up to 109k or so. It is now 105k and let me tell you, it was hard to pare down. But pare down I did, because I got rid of some very amusing, but not at all vital to the plot, scenes. (Yes, I say scenes, because that is how I write!)

Hey, your paring down has to come from somewhere. My writing is not overly flowery or poetic, so I couldn't go through and delete big unnecessary chunks of sentences that were too wordy. If you can do that, go for it. If not, you've got to start picking out the parts that just don't matter to the real story -- and believe me, they are there.

This doesn't mean you have to delete them forever; you can save them for another story and adapt it later on. In my case, I tend to just delete big chunks at once -- forever -- because I don't want to be tempted to go back and shove them in later cos I can't bear to part with them. So I delete, and I delete rather quickly, because I have learned to go with my instinct. If you would stop and say, "Hey, that's funny -- but what's it got to do with the relationship of the main characters, which is the main story of the book?" then it might be something you can get rid of.

Step 2: Pare down your dialogue tags.

In some cases you don't need any dialogue tags at all. In other cases, you don't need to have both an action tag and dialogue tag in the same sentence, or some conversation. Obviously, I am not telling you to get rid of all of them! Only the ones that slow a reader down and don't need to be there. Personally, I rarely use dialogue tags and use action tags in their place -- sometimes I also stick a combo in there, but rarely. You can trim down a lot of your word count just by getting rid of these bits when they're not needed.

Step 3: Clean up your info dumps.

Have you got a section of necessary info that just takes up way too much space in your novel? Pare it down, baby! Even if it's necessary, there's probably a bit that you don't really need.

Step 4: Pare down your pages and pages of internal meandering.

Is your heroine constantly mulling something over? Does she really need to be? Sometimes, yes, most probably. But in every chapter, not so much. Readers and agents like to learn about a character by seeing what they do. Internal thoughts are important, but you shouldn't have oodles of it everywhere.

Step 5: Get rid of purple prose!

The books I grew up reading had lots of it and when I started writing, I thought it was cool. It ain't. Don't stick unnecessary descriptions in there -- you're only slowing the reader down and extending your word count.

Step 6: Consider making it a series.

If you've really got 160k words you can't pare down, consider making it two 80k word novels.

Image: Felixco, Inc. /


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