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What I Learned From Cutting 70,000 Words

Guest Blogger: Shannon Stewart

The second draft of my first YA novel was 165,000 words long. I swore up and down that not one word could be removed without damaging the entire story.

*snort*

Then I began seeking publication. The more I read from YA publishers and writing blogs, the more I became convinced that my query had to be able to say, “complete at [somewhere under 100,000] words.”

Photo by Kerem Yucel • FreeImages

Photo by Kerem Yucel • FreeImages

Long story short: it’s now a trim 95,000. And though cutting was laborious and often painful, it ended up making such a better book that I don’t regret even one beloved sentence gone. Here are five lessons I learned during the hard and ruthless work:

  1. It’s not as impossible as you think. The best encouragement I read on cutting was a comment on one of the many blog posts encouraging first-timers to keep it under 100,000 words. The commenter was a published historical fiction author. She pointed out that publishers were more lenient on word counts for that genre, and her novel clocked in around 150,000 words. But when they shortened it for the audiobook version, she marveled: the story was still completely intact. She didn’t feel anything missing.

Her words inspired me, and I have found them to be true. More than intact, my story is improved. The cut forced me to boil down slow chapters to their essences, to find creative ways to move quickly through important explanations, and to trim bloated dissections of character emotion.

  1. Those lines you love can be your worst enemies. I agonized over each and every sentence in my first and second drafts, determined that I would not have to plod through 5+ revisions like others I’d read about.

With the hindsight of my seventh revision, I would have told myself not to worry too much over writing perfect lines the first time around. Some of my prettiest sentences were the hardest to cut. Spending 15 minutes meticulously crafting them didn’t change the fact that they needed to go; it just made it harder to press Delete.

Now that I’m working on my second WIP, I’m taking a different tack: a strategy I call word-vomit. I write, not worrying about crafting meticulous sentences. I’m not sure it will work, but it gets me more quickly to the “real” writing of my later drafts.

  1. Good descriptions don’t have to be long. I don’t know about you, but I see my story as a movie playing in my head. I know the grain of the wood, the glow of the light, and the exact layout of each room. My first draft spent paragraphs describing these things in detail. These paragraphs had all the heart of a home inspector’s itinerary.

Now, I know that some have described minute details with great success (here’s looking at you, Jordan and Rothfuss!), but when I thought of the YA fantasy settings I had the clearest images of, they were from Harry Potter. (And not just because of the movies, which don’t always match my mental images.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a mere 76,944 words—and gave me photograph-clear images of multiple settings, from Privet Drive to Snape’s dungeon. I paged through the book to see how Rowling accomplished this feat. Each description in and of itself was fairly spare: one or two visuals, one other sensory detail. For instance, the first descriptions of Hogwarts’ entrance hall involve tiles, torches, and echoes. The other descriptions happened as the characters interacted with the environments, giving each setting soul rather than the feel of a prepared movie set.

  1. Cutting small amounts = cutting large amounts. My major cuts definitely involved fusing chapters and striking whole paragraphs. These major changes not only streamlined the bumps in my plot, but they also cut up to 5,000 words at a time! However, it took a lot more than this to cut 70,000: it took a bajillion unglamorous sentence-level edits.

My goal was to drop a few words from each paragraph. Sometimes that meant revising like so: “My goal became dropping several words from each paragraph.”

A tweak here, a tweak there, and I cut 2 words from that sentence. That may not seem like much, but if you do it to every dang sentence, it adds up quickly. I combed my story, changing “was searching” to “searched,” or eliminating all unnecessary uses of “that.” By the end of two hours, I could chop up to 500 words that way. Not too shabby!

  1. I cut too much. Ah, the twist ending. In my determination to eradicate every word not relevant to the main plot, I took out part of the heart of my story. My characters no longer agonized over their emotions in long paragraphs, but beta-readers also didn’t feel as close to them. Some small details, irrelevant to the major arc, had actually still done good work: they made my characters human.

I’m now rereading my current draft to study how I can reinfuse the story’s soul. Currently I’m aiming for more sensory detail to close the distance between reader and character. Do you have any tips? I would seriously love to hear them.

I harp to my students all the time about how real writing is in the revising, but I never applied that to my own first draft. Now I know it’s always true. I still have much revision to go, but at least now I’m revising a more manageably sized mess.

Shannon StewartShannon Stewart is a high school English teacher with an MA in English Literature still curled in its mail tube in her closet. The real prize, her love for British fiction, is on exuberant display in her classes each week. So far, she’s completed several of her life goals: naming her two children after fictional characters, getting her husband to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and completing her first WIP, the fantasy Callia-Born, this year.

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7 comments on “What I Learned From Cutting 70,000 Words

  1. Great post! I especially like number three because I struggle with descriptions.

  2. I hear you. I once tried to read a historical novel by an award-winning writer but gave up on it at chapter 3 because of exactly what you describe, excruciating detail — more like electron microscope — of every single possible sensory extravangaza, including pages and pages of mind-numbing exposition about clothing, And this author is a guy! I applaud your ruthlessness. May it bear you sweet and pungent fruit.

    • Thank you so much! Though I mentioned Rothfuss as a successful practitioner of minute detail, I actually couldn’t stand that about The Name of the Wind (especially because the protagonist is supposedly narrating his adventures to an historian! He doesn’t care about the make of the table you were sitting at!). But even he didn’t reach the extravagant detail of the author you mentioned…

  3. Did you keep a copy of the original? Did you know that you can compare/contrast documents in Word? I’ve used it to good effect in determining where my books needed details added in/deleted before.

    As for what to put back in, utilize as many of the five senses as possible at least once in each scene (but not overwhelmingly so). Make sure you have realistic action/reaction sequences.

    How can you bring out what your protagonist is feeling? thinking? (same for your antagonist?) Are the clues/cues there that would lead your reader to empathize?

    (hopefully some of this is helpful!)

    • Yes, thank goodness! I kept saved drafts of all 6 previous drafts. I am so thankful for those now. Thank you for the suggestions!

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