Are you an aspiring writer? Our very own Veronica Roth posted some helpful tips on YA Highway for trimming up your manuscript.
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.
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?”
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