When I was eleven, I sat down at our family computer armed with nothing but an empty document in front of me and not a single outlined sentence to be seen, determined to begin (and eventually complete) my very first full-length, 50,000+ word novel. And I did it! The finished first draft was officially 50,026 words. After I had gone back and added perhaps two extra, unnecessary fight scenes just to hit the word limit. 😂
To sum up this story, I was a serious underwriter when I was younger! And I know that underwriting is a very common struggle for a lot of writers who want to write full-length novels.
In the spring of this year, however, I embarked on writing a novel that I had fully outlined and planned out. A couple months of furious drafting later, I finished off the novel at 108,143 words. I had been shooting for…80-90k.
Needless to say, I am now an overwriter! Everything I write turns out to be far longer than I initially anticipated. Does this sound at all like you? Do you wish you knew how to cut back on your story’s word count so that it’s easier to read and tighter than your previous drafts? If so, then congratulations, because you are reading a blog post, particularly on that subject! Let’s dive into 3 ways you can assess whether or not the words of your novel are necessary, and how to shorten it if needed!
(And if you’re an underwriter reading this, I have some blog posts on that as well! Such as this one here! 🙂
Tip #1: Cut Fluff Dialogue/Descriptions
It’s easy to fall into the fluff trap when you’re writing. You’ve been going at it for over an hour, you’re completely caught up in the headspace of your story, and every word that pours from your fingertips feels completely necessary and impactful to the story. The emotional dialogue of two farmers discussing the destruction of their crop while they pass by the main character who is completely focused on something else is the best conversation you’ve ever written! How could you get rid of it?
Well, let me tell you, I’ve fallen into this trap before! Fluff dialogue and description writing, especially when it’s on a topic that I love (maybe it’s two of my favorite characters bantering back and forth, or I’m describing the majestic towers of a castle at sunset) are so easy to write. However, they very well could be unnecessary to your story and should be cut so as to keep the story moving and keep the reader engaged.
That said, some readers may love your characters as much as you do, and really enjoy a scene of them bantering back and forth. Or others, perhaps some fantasy geeks, would drool over your castle description. Try to discern which excess dialogue is building on your characters and making them more sympathetic and relatable to your readers, and which are just filler words. The same goes for description writing–what is building your world up, giving your reader a cemented image in their mind of where your characters are. After they’ve got a great picture in their head, the rest is probably overkill. Get feedback from fellow writers or readers too. A fresh pair of eyes could help open up which dialogue and description is solid or fluff!
Tip #2: Cut Unnecessary Subplots
When I was writing the first draft of my first novel, A Silence in the Shadows, I couldn’t get enough of random side quests and subplots that had no direct meaning to the story. Should I have my brother main characters run into an underground dragon’s nest while they’re traveling? Why not? It’s dragons! Who doesn’t like those scaly critters?
Again, this is a very easy trap to fall into, particularly when you love your world and characters. But again, if it’s holding up the story, watering it down, and causing your reader to set down the book, it needs to go. Feedback is sooo helpful for deciding what to cut and what to keep.
I also have another tip on how to solve this problem–even before you write the unnecessary subplot! I know that some of you probably don’t want to hear this–and I didn’t when I wrote stories without a single idea in my head beforehand–but can I just harp on the power of a solid, edited, and well-thought-out outline? They help you stay on track with your novel, follow the beats of the story that will create the most power and impact in your plot, and if you add an accidental subplot, you can find it easily in the outline and take it out before you even start drafting your novel!
You certainly don’t have to outline if you don’t want to, but it’s definitely something I’ve found helpful when trying to polish up the structure of my novels.
Tip #3: Cut Unneeded Characters
Alright! Here we are with the final tip of the day! It’s pretty similar to the two above–assess your novel when you want to know how to cut down on words and tighten your story. Study each character and ask yourself: “What does this character bring to my story? What important roles do they have throughout? Is there any way the story could be just as good or even better if they were cut entirely? Do they play such insignificant roles that those roles could be added to an all ready existing character?”
If you’re starting to feel like a character isn’t holding their own against these questions, and they take up a lot of unnecessary screen–or should I say word?–time, it might be beneficial to both your story’s impact and the novels wordcount for them to go! It can be really painful to cut a favorite scene or beloved character from your story. But sometimes it’s for the best. Make sure you are discerning and careful as you go through your novel and find things to cut. You might find scenes or subplots that are very unnecessary. However, double-check that they don’t add anything to the story before you remove them. You don’t want to create plot holes by cutting something essential!
And again, before we close out, I have to harp one more time on the beauty of an outline. Before you even begin writing the first draft you can run through your outline, and have a few fellow writers, friends, or family members also take a look and give you feedback on whether or not anything needs to be cut or added beforehand. It’s so much easier to make these major adjustments in a two thousand-word outline than it is to cut things when you’re all ready 100,000 words deep into your epic fantasy novel!
So there you have it. Three different tips and assessment ideas to cut down on the length of your novel and make it tighter and stronger than ever! Have you used any of these methods before? Do you have some of your own? Which writer are you–an overwriter or an underwriter? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to chat! 🌝
That’s it for now! Thanks for reading.
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2 thoughts on “3 Ways to Shorten Your Novel”
This was an excellent blog post with some excellent tips, my friend. I tend to be an over-writer as well (my historical fantasy ended at 105,000 words), so reading your tips have given me some good things to think about before I start editing my novel. Thank you!
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Thank you, Kirsten! I’m so glad you liked it and found it helpful!