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Making Every Word Count

Making Every Word Count

When SheWrites Press (SWP) accepted my novel for publication, there was one caveat. They do not publish anything that exceeds 120,000 words. And Beyond the Ghetto Gates clocked in at 135,000.

Now, when it comes to historical fiction, my word count is not excessive. In fact, many of the most successful historical novels attain tome status. Think Ken Follett, for example.

But SWP was crystal clear that 120,000 was their limit – and that needed to include all front and back matter. And my comprehensive Author’s Note and Acknowledgements hadn’t even been added in yet!

So I began cutting. And while I’ve always considered myself a concise writer and have counseled many of my editorial clients on distilling down wordy prose, I found a plethora of passages that could be further condensed.

As someone who started publishing as a poet, I had been taught to make every word count. Whenever I approach a poem, my own or a student’s,  I start by redlining the connectives – the, and – and reducing any language that lends itself to prosiness. But while I could (and did) kill certain unnecessary words – “that,” for instance, could come out more times than it needed to stay in – I wasn’t writing poetry here. And I was wary of making the language sound choppy. In fact, sometimes the addition of “and” helped me vary my sentence structure while still cutting down on names and nouns.

I also teach my students to consider two criteria whenever they must decide if a section should remain in the novel: (one) does it move the plot or (two) contribute to characterization? Frankly, as a historical novelist, I also feel one additional standard is critical: (three) does it help immerse the reader in that time and place? But there were several “deep background” pieces that I found I could dispose of without harming the narrative, many of which stemmed from research done on the period, such as what was happening back in Paris during the era of the Directory, how the Revolution invented a unique calendar, or a scene with a dressmaker. Did I regret losing them? Absolutely. I’d worked hard to fit them into the storyline so they felt completely natural, and was proud of the research that they showcased. Was cutting them instrumental in getting to the magic number? Of course.

Then I went laboriously through the novel, looking at every single sentence. Here’s a short list of some of the techniques I used in that sentence-by-sentence trim. My students will recognize that I already advocate using many of these. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s easier to see this type of flabby writing in anyone else’s work than one’s own:

  • Avoid summary statements – don’t tell the reader that you’re going to show them something, then show them. Or don’t show them and then tell them.
  • Can you say it with greater precision? As I did this deep language dive, I found myself substituting words for better ones – sometimes even without the advantage of cutting words.
  • Use strong verbs instead of a combination of weak ones and the noun form of the verb.
  • Avoid stutter verbs – “he began to walk out the door” – unless you plan to interrupt him before he leaves the room.
  • Employ questions rather than statements where you can – they’re shorter, more direct, and have the added advantage of getting closer to your focal character’s emotional state.
  • Don’t say the same thing two or three times when once will do. Trust your reader.
  • Let your use of action or body language or facial expressions show your emotional intent without stating the emotion as well.
  • Use contractions when you can: “she will” is two words, “she’ll” is one.
  • Consider a single word rather than a phrase – “return” is one word, “come back” is two.
  • If you are in a character’s point of view, it’s almost always safe to delete “feel” or “thinks” and just let the perspective carry the character’s perceptions and impressions.
  • Do you need “up” or “down?” Sometimes you do, when you want to show a power dynamic – “he looked down at her” can be a loaded statement. But when “he sat down in the chair,” the direction is implicit.
  • Eliminate names where you can. We overuse them in dialogue anyway. How often do you in fact use someone’s name in conversation? Yes, sometimes they’re needed for emphasis – but more often, they’re not.
  • Speaking of dialogue – and thought – you can often write these as fragments and approximate how people actually speak or think.

And then there is the simplest – and hardest – trick of all. Look at every sentence. Can it be said with fewer words? Then again – fewer than that?

The trick here is not to sacrifice your narrative and character intentions for the sake of cutting words. But as I moved through the manuscript, I often found trimming the flab from my words made the novel stronger, allowing it to move faster and work better. So while it can prove a tedious and sometimes frustrating task to cut down the wordcount, it almost always makes for a better book in the end.

Oh yes – the final wordcount? 118,3083 words without the front and back matter – 119,296 with.

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