Overwriting: How Do I Cut It Down?

My book is too long! Now what???

Last week, we took a look at how to bulk out a story and add words. We discussed how we can add in subplots or characters, create new scenes we may have glossed over in earlier drafts, show rather than tell, and discuss what may be lacking with our beta readers.

This week, we will address the opposite problem: overwriting. Overwriting is when your word count is higher than your target, and if you plan to query, it’s important to remove the excess so that an agent will take your work seriously (look back to this post if you want a reminder of why word count matters).

Dealing with Deleting

Cutting your work can be hard. So before we even discuss that, let’s talk about overcoming the emotional and mental hurdle of paring down your manuscript.

You may have heard the phrase kill your darlings, and very simply put, that means we shouldn’t hang on to things just because we like them. They need more of a reason to stay.

For me, I find it’s easier to start cutting things out when I spend at least a month away from a work. That way I’m less attached to it. If I don’t wait long enough, lots of useless darlings stay in my work and weigh it down.

However, just because something doesn’t work in your current story doesn’t mean it will never work. You can always copy/paste your darlings into another document to repurpose later. Even if you never come back to it, you can rest assured that your darlings aren’t gone forever…they just moved. And if you decide you want to add them back in, they’re easy to find again.

But often you won’t even be able to notice, and your manuscript will be better for it.

How to find places to trim

Extra subplots and characters

Yup, extra words can lurk in unnecessary subplots and characters. For example, the first few versions of This Cursed Flame included several extra characters: Alem, Cody, and Afya. And none of them made the final cut. Here’s why:

Alem: this was a character substituting for the real antagonist. He chased the main characters around when all along a different character should have had this place. And so I cut him. (Plus, his name was really similar to the big bad, Ahriman. That can be confusing!)

Cody: this one was hard. But this character served no purpose and had no influence on the outcome of the story. He was fluff, there to add drama that the story really didn’t need.

Afya: this was the hardest. I loved her! But ultimately, she had the same issues as Cody. She was redundant to the plot, and combining her with another character served her purpose better.

So you see, characters can be cut or combined with other characters, and sometimes, that’s the way to do it. Make sure every person in the story serves a purpose and influences the final outcome in some way. And if they don’t, or if their presence muddles the plot, do away with them.

And the same can be said for subplots. If it’s doing the same thing (not pulling its emotional weight in the story, for example) or confuses the plot, it may be better to eliminate it.

Scenes

As you go through and read to revise, ask yourself what each scene contributes to the overall story or subplots. Is it moving the story forward? Does it develop relationships or establish the world?

And, can it be combined with another scene to serve the same purpose?

You may find that some of your scenes aren’t pulling their weight (like the subplots I mentioned above), and if that is the case, they might be eliminated. And if there’s something in the scene you really like (a darling), see if you can add it in somewhere else.

THe writing itself

Another place to look is at your writing itself. This level of editing will be smaller in scale, but you’d be surprised how much it can add up! So what should you look for?

  1. Purple prose: any unnecessarily over-the-top descriptions, such as overly flowery explanations of the setting. Your beta readers or critique partners should be able to point this out.
  2. Weak adverbs: look for adverbs and adjectives. While personally I love them, oftentimes they can weaken your writing if you’re not careful (and add lots of unnecessary words!). Check each one. Can you make your sentence or your verbs stronger by eliminating the modifier and replacing the words with something stronger? For example, “very loud” can be changed to something like “cacophonous” or “deafening.” (hint: any time you see a word like very, try replacing it and the words associated with it with a single, strong word)

Ask your readers

While you’re doing all this editing, don’t forget to ask your beta readers and critique partners these same questions. Ask them if any characters, subplots, or scenes feel unnecessary or redundant. Ask them to point out paragraphs or sections that feel weak or purple. Take each comment into account and see what you can change to improve (and trim) the writing.

Ann Dayleview: A Case Study

I have one amazing example of overwriting and trimming to share with you. My friend Ann has a fantastic manuscript with one huge problem: it was over 200,000 words long. As a YA (young adult) fantasy. (reminder: YA fantasy should max out at about 100k words)

So she spent months trimming it down, looking for the places she could tighten her work and improve on the story.

And you know what? She cut it in half. Her manuscript is now under 110k words, which is something she can query an agent. Isn’t that incredible?! If you want to read more about how she did it, check out her blog post here! It’s really worth the read, especially if overwriting is something you’re struggling with.

I also talked to Ann, and she had a couple extra pieces of quick and dirty advice for trimming down a manuscript:

  1. Look for eating and traveling scenes. Often, these have plenty of unnecessary material in them (I’m super guilty of too many food scenes!).
  2. Make sure everything relates to the overall goals. I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.

It’s as simple (and as hard) as that!

Now that we’ve discussed all these points, do any of them speak to you? Have you had experience with drastic manuscript editing? What tips do you have to share for overwriting or underwriting?

Let’s chat in the comments!

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