How to shorten your novel in 3 steps

Word count. It’s a hotly debated topic within the writing industry. What is too long? What is too short? Some even argue that we shouldn’t care. Let your novel be as long or as short as it needs to be.

Well that approach is tricky and boils down to your answer to one more question: Are you planning to publish traditionally or on your own through a self-publishing service?

If you are going to self-publish, word count isn’t as important. But if you are looking to sign with an agent and a traditional publishing house…

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According to BookEnds Literary Agency, word count is one of four reasons they will be instantly reject your novel without even reading your query letter. They – among others – recommend that the average adult fiction novel should fall somewhere between 80-100K words. Young adult and mysteries are usually a little shorter where fantasy and science fiction can be longer.

Now before you panic, this only applies to your final, polished, ready-to-submit draft. First drafts, seconds drafts, fourteen drafts need not worry. Which brings me to the true reason behind this blog.

I wrote my first novel over the course of two years. My first draft ended up being 105,000 words. TOO long.

But on the flip side, my second novel only took six weeks to draft, and it currently sits at just over 60K. WAY too short.

Since I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum, I wanted to share a few tips and tricks I learned on getting your manuscript to the proper length. Let’s get started.


In any type of professional or educational writing, you start with the problem and move onto the solution from there.

PROBLEM: A high word count typically means one, two or all three of these things:

  • Too much unnecessary information
  • Not enough tension
  • Too wordy

SOLUTION? Follow these steps.

Step 1: Slash any unnecessary information.

Take a really close look at the pieces of your manuscript: characters, settings, plot points. Do each serve a true purpose to the story?

You may find that the two pages you use setting up a new location can be cut and the scene moved to an already established-setting. Maybe two secondary characters – and therefore their characterization and dialogue – can be combined into one. A subplot that you love but doesn’t really add to the main story? Trash.

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Triple check your first few chapters where the majority of backstory – the killer of great stories – lies. Cut those long paragraphs and thread them into what’s already there: dialogue, internal thoughts, reactions. Get to that inciting incident as quickly as you can.

Step 2: Cut entire scenes to amp up the tension.

To drive your story forward, every single scene should contain most of the following: a short-term goal, some type of conflict, a piece of new information, an emotional and a logical reaction from your characters, and a decision on next steps.

Is your scene missing these items? Then ask yourself if you really need it. If not, get that red pen out.

NOTE: Most of these will be found in the middle 50% of your manuscript – a phase commonly known as “Tests, Allies, and Enemies” in the Hero’s Journey.

But cutting these scenes, you’ll find your pacing has picked up and your reader will find themselves turning pages even faster.

To read more on tension, check out these eight tips from Writer’s Edit.

Step 3: Go through with a fine-toothed comb.

Adverbs, superfluous sentences, filler words, unnecessary repetition, passive voice…

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I am not saying you need to line edit at this stage. Don’t worry about grammar here, but when you read back through your draft, ask yourself often if each word is needed. You’d be surprised how many words you can cut this way. Not convinced? E.B. Black has some great examples of how you can tighten and shorten your novel, word-by-word.

 

Next week…

I’ll share some insight into adding to your too-short novel. If only you could take the words cut from one and transfer to another, am I right?

Happy writing!

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