Reducing Your Word Count: Tips for Overwriters
Writers tend to fall into two categories: underwriters and overwriters. No, there’s no category for the perfect writer because it is incredibly difficult to write a first draft that meets industry word count standards. Nonetheless, when you do have your first draft ready, it’s important to adjust it to meet these standards. For overwriters, that means identifying the cause of your story’s length and understanding how to shorten it.
Importance of Word Count
As with all aspects of writing, word count ranges are not strict. If your story absolutely needs to be longer or shorter than the average story of its genre, you shouldn’t force it to meet restrictions at the cost of the plot.
However, many publishers will use your story’s length as a major factor when deciding whether to publish your work. A story that falls outside the industry standard word count limits is unlikely to attract publishers because it is unlikely to attract readers. Although readers are always looking for a fresh story, they appreciate predictability in a few aspects, one of which is length.
A six-hundred page story is a turn-off for most readers, so you want to avoid writing something that long. That being said, your first draft is unlikely to fall within the accepted range, so you may have to cut a lot of words out of your story. How do you do that?
Reasons for Excess Words
The first and most important thing to do is determine why your story is so long. Below are the most common reasons for excess words:
Extra Subplots: If you find that you have severely surpassed the expected word count for your genre, you might simply have too much going on in your story. You might have a couple extra obstacles in your primary plot or have unnecessary subplots. Not every supporting character needs their own romantic or tragic subplot. Removing unnecessary details about the life of minor characters helps you focus on the major ones. Additionally, if an obstacle to your character’s goal serves only to stall and does not result in character development, it may not be crucial to the story.
Extra Scenes: These are often easier to identify than extra subplots, but they typically don’t constitute as large of a word count. Still, they’re important to remove. Read through every scene in your story and summarize its connection to the plot. If you have to twist or elaborate upon a scene to explain how it contributes to the end of your story, that scene probably isn’t essential to the story. Fluff and banter scenes are common examples of these. While a few such scenes may be necessary for character development, overuse may seem repetitive and may harm your story more than benefit it.
Purple Prose: Try reading your story out loud or giving it to someone else to read. If you find that a reader spends too much time trying to decipher what each sentence or paragraph is trying to say, they won’t have enough energy to actually understand the plot of the story. Purple prose is the extra words or complicated structure you might feel tempted to add to your story to make it sound beautiful, but truthfully, the best way to get your message across is often to just say what you want to say. The easiest things to read are written with straightforward sentence structures and vocabulary (avoiding parentheticals and complex language). Try to find purple prose in your writing and rewrite those sections of your story more simply.
Fillers: Even if you don’t have extra scenes that don’t contribute to the plot, you may have extra words that don’t contribute to a sentence. Fillers are these extra words or phrases (such as that, there is, like, etc.). While they might not seem like a major cause of overwriting, they build up over the course of a novel. No, deleting fillers will not reduce your word count by ten thousand words, but it could help you get within the accepted range if you are near it. Additionally, removing them just makes your story easier to read. More details on specific filler words and how to get rid of them can be found here.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Removing large chunks of text—or even just a beautifully written sentence—can be heart-wrenching. You put a lot of effort into every word that you wrote, and cutting thousands of them from your final piece takes a lot of courage.
One way to reduce the pain is to avoid deleting text entirely. Keep an archive folder or document where you can store everything you’ve written for future reference. Even if a particular scene is unnecessary for one story, you might be able to repurpose it to fit another story (or repurpose it into a story of its own). When you keep old writing for future use, you are saving your hard work, creating sources for future inspiration, and potentially reducing your workload in the future.
Reducing your word count is by no means easy, but it is doable if you identify the reasons for your story’s length.
Are you an overwriter or an underwriter? Let me know in the comments!