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Trimming the Fat from Your Manuscript

Photo by: Lisa Sorensen
In her query roundup the other day, the illustrious Suzie Townsend said something that got me thinking:

"My second thought on a very long word count is that it usually suggests that the manuscript needs work. Not always. I've read some long books that were awesome. But I've also read a lot of long books that felt long--and anything over 200k words suggests there are some pacing and storytelling issues."

A lot of aspiring authors realize, at some point in the process, that their manuscript is too long. It might be just a couple thousand words too long, or, as in my case, it might be about 35,000 words too long. Usually the culprits for a too-long manuscript are twofold-- a plot weighed down by too much information or unnecessary events, and loose writing. It's the writing I'm going to talk about today.

Believe it or not, you can cut down a LOT just by tightening up your writing, and you might not even know that your writing is loose! I certainly didn't until someone pointed it out, and then I went on a rampage through my manuscript, slicing words like other people slice...bagels. By the time I was finished, I had cut maybe 10,000 words, just by tweaking each sentence.

Here are a few things to watch for:

1. Unnecessary "extra" phrases.

These are phrases that you shove in your sentences that don't really need to be there, either because they're implied by the rest of the sentence or because they're repetitions of what came before or after, or because they don't add anything worthwhile to the text. My biggest culprit was this:

He picked up the cup and took a sip of water.

Compare this to...

He sipped his water.

See, we already know that he has to pick up the cup to sip the water, so we don't really need the gesture for comprehension-- it's implied, and the extra words just weigh the writing down.

OR

Her heart pounded in her chest.

Compare this to...

Her heart pounded.

 I mean, where else does a heart pound? You can feel your pulse elsewhere, but your heart will only ever pound in your chest.

There are plenty of phrases like these that you can watch for-- just start looking for them and you'll see them, I promise!

2. "Topic" sentences

I have a problem with topic sentences. I do this thing where I know what the paragraph is going to say, so I say it up front, and then I spend several sentences extrapolating on it. Really, what I've done is TOLD the ending of the paragraph instead of SHOWING what I mean. People talk about this concept on a greater scale all the time, but what they don't realize is that you can "give away the ending" on a sentence and paragraph level as well as a scene and plot level.

This, by way of example, is an unrevised paragraph from my first manuscript:

"The sweet and bitter taste always carried me into the same memory. I closed my eyes as the flavor filled my mouth, and I could see my old kitchen, with the clean white tiles and the dark cabinets and the light streaming through the curtains, my mother standing at the sink."

This paragraph didn't actually make it into the final draft, but if it had, I would have changed it to something like this:

"The sweet and bitter taste always carried me to a memory of my old kitchen, with the clean white tiles and dark cabinets and light streaming through the curtains, my mother standing at the sink."

The topic sentence-- the sweet and bitter taste always carried me into the same memory-- doesn't really need to be there, does it? Because I explain exactly what the memory is later in the paragraph. So all I have to do is jump ahead a few words.

3. Constant Descriptions

Honestly, I still have a problem with this-- I feel like the reader needs to know exactly what each character is doing at every single moment. The truth is, maybe I need to know those things when I write the first draft, but the reader actually doesn't. This shows up most often during dialogue:

"Hi," Joe says. He scratches his head.
Mary looks at him and smiles. "Hi. How are you?"
"Fine." Joe sits down on the edge of the desk. "Just got out of detention."
Mary frowns. "Detention? Why did you have detention."
Joe shrugs. "Just mouthed off in class, I guess."
Mary sighs. "Joe, when will you learn?"

That's sort of an extreme (and badly written!) example, but you get the point: you don't need to describe every little thing that each character is doing, especially in a conversation between two people, when alternating dialogue is expected. I mean, look at the scene without all the extra stuff:

"Hi." Joe scratches his head.
Mary smiles at him. "Hi. How are you?"
"Fine." He sits down on the edge of the desk. "Just got out of detention."
"Detention? Why did you have detention?"
"Just mouthed off in class, I guess."
"Joe, when will you learn?"


Better, right?

Those are just a few small tips, but they can do a lot for reducing the overall length of your manuscript if you're diligent about going through the whole thing, and they improve your writing and its readability. My rule of thumb is that if I'm not sure about cutting something, I try it, and if the sentence or paragraph still makes sense without it, it's probably worth doing.

I will close now with one of my favorite writer quotes:

"I believe more in the scissors than in the pencil."
-Truman Capote
Veronica Roth

Veronica is the author of the NYT bestselling YA dystopian thriller series Divergent, published by Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books. She's also a graduate of Northwestern University, a Christian, and A Tall Person, among other things.

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19 comments:

  1. This would have been a nice reminder for self-editing yourself YESTERDAY when I turned in my next book to my agent. ;)

    Topic sentences. So that's what they're called. I so do that. And I'm bad with extra phrases, too. The sad part is, I know this. Yet, it's so easy to forget when your hitting those keys. Me = glutton for editing punishment.

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  2. This post is awesome. I've committed so many of these writing no-no's at one point or another. I usually try to clean them out once I've pumped out the first draft, but they sometimes get lost in the shuffle. It's nice to see them all in a list here, as a reminder when revising. This one will be bookmarked! Thanks!

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  3. Great post, Veronica! Little things like this always slip through the cracks. It's the perspective thing, when you're too close you often can't identify what the problem is until you take a step back and see you've gone off on a tangent when all you needed was the first sentence.

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  4. Nice markers to look for when you're revising. I think we all do these when drafting a story.

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  5. This is an awesome article and I'm guilty of all things you mentioned above. It's going to be perfect when I start revising. Thanks!

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  6. This is an amazing post. Why is it so hard to change our bad writing habits? I know what I tend to do wrong, but I still consistently do them. Ah!

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  7. wonderful tips! Going to go apply them to my too long manuscript!

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  8. Thanks for these excellent tips! I've noticed #1 in my novels, too, and it's amazing how rewriting to get rid of the extra words helps with moving the story along.

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  9. Love the post! I'm currently in the middle of revising my first novel, so i could really relate to some of these tips. A major critique I received from my agent was that I tended to add unnecessary information throughout the story. So this post really came in handy.

    I don't know if other writers have this same problem, but I tend to add every single detail in every single scene. This is good and bad. It's good because my writing comes off very descriptive, painting a perfect picture for my readers, but it's bad because sometimes my descriptions tend to be unnecessary.

    This was a great post and I will definitely consider some of your tips while finishing up my revising process.

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  10. Wow... I've got a lot of work to do now. >_<

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  11. Yes! PERFECT TIMING with this post!

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  12. This is totally my method! I sliced 17,000 words -- yes, 17k -- off my current MS during my last revisions this way, using a combo content-slice and loose-writing slice. It was so liberating!

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  13. I literally just finished doing this with my current WIP. 12,000 words, mostly by cutting things like you mentioned above. That and 2 content cuts where I realized the scene was cool but did nothing important - but the vast majority of the cutting was from trimming the fat verbiage.

    Kerry

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  14. I'm going to have to disagree with you on just about every point here, Truman. :)

    #1:
    Unnecessary extra phrases are an issue, but with your example… Sometimes you need to specify that the person picked up the cup. What if they were already holding something? Or what if there was no cup previously mentioned in the scene? To call all phrases like that "assumed" is to cut needed transitions.

    Re: "Heart pounded in your chest": The sensation doesn't always come in your chest. It can come in your ears or skull, as well. (Yes, I speak from experience.)

    #2:
    No argument there, though I think it's interesting that you identify it as topic sentences. Seeing your #1 and #3, though, I'm wondering if the core issue isn't more a fight with wordiness and over-directness.

    #3:
    Dialogue without actions or dialogue tags = floating heads, causes a fair number of problems, itself. Over two-thirds of communication is non-verbal, making floating heads particularly unrealistic in most cases, and it's often confusing.

    I'd call the actual problem in your "badly written" dialogue example to be a lack of subtext—and your "better" example could be more grounded in its setting. (For example, what's Mary doing? Is she sitting at a desk doing homework? Standing and cleaning a chalkboard? I have idea.)

    For what I mean by subtext, compare:

    A. Emily bounced on her toes. "I'm fine."
    B. Emily's shoulders slumped. "I'm fine."
    C. Emily didn't glance up from her newspaper. "I'm fine."

    A. = direct (but Emily's hyper or excited about something)
    B. = indirect (Emily's lying)
    C. = direct or indirect, depending on Emily as a character—she might be dismissing the question, lying, or answering it honestly.

    Note:
    For good places to trim, look for filler words (ex. very, just, however) and filter words (ex. hear, see, smell)—though some filter words can be necessary if you're intentionally writing a "distant" POV rather than a "close" one.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment! I think you might be taking my tips a bit further than I meant them to be taken-- they're just examples of things people might not have thought of before, not hard and fast rules for every single instance of what I've described. For example, you're right to say that if someone is holding something else and then picks up the cup, that doesn't qualify as "unnecessary filler." I was referring to the instances when it's clear that they are picking up the cup, and not important to assert it.

      Also, yes, subtext is important, and nonverbal communication is important to describe, but imagine if I described every single instance of nonverbal communication within a particular passage? It would still be "overdescription"-- too much information, and perhaps an over-reliance on description rather than letting the dialogue itself communicate tone, emotion, and personality.

      Obviously every writer has to decide what can be cut and what needs to stay in to maintain the richness of the text, and that can always change depending on the context. But it is good to be intentional about those things, and to be made aware of words that may NOT be intentional. For example, your list of filler words is definitely a good one!

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    2. Oops, sorry for calling you by the wrong name! >_<

      I've seen several authors recently who took your type of tip to the extreme I mentioned, so it's likely I am a bit over-sensitive. ^_^

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  15. We all have room to cut, don't we? ;)

    My first ms edit was easy, cutting out the unnecessary. The next edits were tougher. When in doubt - especially if it's a whole scene - I ask myself, is this important to the reader, or is this only important to me?

    Thanks for your post!

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  16. I'm just glad to know that you support cutting things out. I think that trimming and refining what we are trying to say is far more effective than being elaborate.

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  17. I agree with all of your writing tips but disagree with your reason for following them. You can't go wrong editing and re-editing your work to cut out superfluous language. All of this is a very good idea, but not because your book is "too long." If it says what it needs to say in the way that needs to be said, it's exactly the right length.

    BTW, in regard to dialog tags, my philosophy -- and this is partly in reaction to major stylistic sins of my own from the past -- is that they should be included only when necessary for clarity as to who is talking. If there are only two people talking and it's clear who the first person speaking is, they're not necessary at all. With more than two people, occasionally they are, but it's better IMO if you can indicate who's speaking within the dialog itself. I don't believe in "never" rules, but to me dialog tags are about as close to "never" as adverbs, which are also occasionally warranted, but not nearly as much as most beginning writers use them.

    Action words in a dialog passage are different. Sometimes it's valuable to describe accompanying gestures, facial expressions, etc. But even there, a lot can be conveyed through the dialog itself so that the reader's imagination fills in the rest. If you actually described the whole of body language that accompanies speech, especially in a highly emotional exchange, you'd have 99% description to 1% dialog and that wouldn't work.

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Item Reviewed: Trimming the Fat from Your Manuscript Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Veronica Roth