One of the most wonderful things about writing as a hobby is that you never have to worry about the length of your story. You can be as self-indulgent as you want, make your prose the royalist of purples, include every single side story and extra thought that strikes your fancy. It’s your story, with no limits, and you can proceed with it as you wish.
When transitioning from casual writing to a more professional writing milieu, this changes. If you want to publish, odds are, you’ll need to write to a word count. If a flash fiction serial says, “1,000 words or less,” your story can’t be 1,025 and still qualify. If a website says, “we accept novellas ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 words,” your story will need to fall into that window. Even when you consider novel-length works, stories are expected to be a certain word count to fit neatly into specific genres – romance is usually around 80,000 words, young adult usually 50,000 to 80,000, debut novels usually have to be 100,000 words or less regardless of genre, etc. If you self-publish or work with a small press, you may be able to get away with breaking these “rules,” but it’s still worthwhile to learn to read your own writing critically with length in mind and learn to recognize what you do and do not need to make your story work – and then, if length isn’t an issue in your publishing setting, you can always decide after figuring out what’s non-essential to just keep everything anyway.
If you’re writing for fun? You literally never have to worry about your word count (well, except for sometimes in specific challenges that have minimum and/or maximum word counts), and as such, this post is probably not for you.
But, if you’re used to writing in the “throw in everything and the kitchen sink” way that’s common in fandom fanfiction circles, and you’re trying to transition only to be suddenly confronted with the reality that you’ve written 6,000 words for a short story project with a maximum word count of 5,000…well, we at Duck Prints Press have been there, we are in fact there right now, as we finish our stories for our upcoming anthology Add Magic to Taste and many of us wrote first drafts that were well over the maximum word count.
So, based on our experiences, here are our suggestions on approaches to help your story shorter…without losing the story you wanted to tell!
- Cut weasel words (we wrote a whole post to help you learn how to do that!) such as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, the “was ~ing” sentence structure, redundant time words such as “a moment later,” and many others.
- When reviewing dialog, keep an eye out for “uh,” “er,” “I mean,” “well,” and other casual extra words. A small amount of that kind of language usage can make dialog more realistic, but a little goes a long way, and often a fair number of words can be removed by cutting these words, without negatively impacting your story at all.
- Active voice almost always uses fewer words than passive voice, so try to use active voice more (but don’t forget that passive voice is important for varying up your sentence structures and keeping your story interesting, so don’t only write in active voice!).
- Look for places where you can replace phrases with single words that mean the same thing. You can often save a lot of words by switching out phrases like “come back” for “return” and seeking out other places where one word can do the work of many.
- Cut sentences that add atmosphere but don’t forward the plot or grow your characters. (Obviously, use your judgement. Don’t cut ALL the flavor, but start by going – I’ve got two sentences that are mostly flavor text – which adds more? And then delete the other, or combine them into one shorter sentence.)
- Remove superfluous dialog tags. If it’s clear who’s talking, especially if it’s a conversation between only two people, you can cut all the he saids, she saids.
- Look for places where you’ve written repetitively – at the most basic level, “ ‘hahaha,’ he laughed,” is an example, but repetition is often more subtle, like instances where you give information in once sentence, and then rephrase part or all of that sentence in the next one – it’s better to poke at the two sentences until you think of an effective, and more concise, way to make them into only one sentence. This also goes for scenes – if you’ve got two scenes that tend towards accomplishing the same plot-related goal, consider combining them into one scene.
- Have a reason for every sentence, and even every sentence clause (as in, every comma insertion, every part of the sentence, every em dashed inclusion, that kind of thing). Ask yourself – what function does this serve? Have I met that function somewhere else? If it serves no function, or if it’s duplicative, consider cutting it. Or, the answer may be “none,” and you may choose to save it anyway – because it adds flavor, or is very in character for your PoV person, or any of a number of reasons. But if you’re saving it, make sure you’ve done so intentionally. It’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to do with your words, or else how can you recognize what to cut, and what not to cut?
- Likewise, have a reason for every scene. They should all move the story along – whatever the story is, it doesn’t have to be “the end of the world,” your story can be simple and straightforward and sequential…but if you’re working to a word count, your scenes should still forward the story toward that end point. If the scene doesn’t contribute…you may not need them, or you may be able to fold it in with another scene, as suggested in item 6.
- Review the worldbuilding you’ve included, and consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. A bit of worldbuilding outside of the bare essentials makes a story feel fleshed out, but again, a little can go a long way. If you’ve got lots of “fun” worldbuilding bits that don’t actually forward your plot and aren’t relevant to your characters, cut them. You can always put them as extras in your blog later, but they’ll just make your story clunky if you have a lot of them.
- Beware of info-dumps. Often finding a more natural way to integrate that information – showing instead of telling in bits throughout the story – can help reduce word count.
- Alternatively – if you over-show, and never tell, this will vastly increase your word count, so consider if there are any places in your story where you can gloss over the details in favor of a shorter more “tell-y” description. You don’t need to go into a minute description of every smile and laugh – sometimes it’s fine to just say, “she was happy” or “she frowned” without going into a long description of their reaction that makes the reader infer that they were happy. (Anyone who unconditionally says “show, don’t tell,” is giving you bad writing advice. It’s much more important to learn to recognize when showing is more appropriate, and when telling is more appropriate, because no story will function as a cohesive whole if it’s all one or all the other.)
- If you’ve got long paragraphs, they’re often prime places to look for entire sentences to cut. Read them critically and consider what’s actually helping your story instead of just adding word count chonk.
- Try reading some or all of the dialog out loud; if it gets boring, repetitive, or unnecessary, end your scene wherever you start to lose interest, and cut the dialog that came after. If necessary, add a sentence or two of description at the end to make sure the transition is abrupt, but honestly, you often won’t even need to do so – scenes that end at the final punchy point in a discussion often work very well.
- Create a specific goal for a scene or chapter. Maybe it’s revealing a specific piece of information, or having a character discover a specific thing, or having a specific unexpected event occur, but, whatever it is, make sure you can say, “this scene/chapter is supposed to accomplish this.” Once you know what you’re trying to do, check if the scene met that goal, make any necessary changes to ensure it does, and cut things that don’t help the scene meet that goal.
- Building on the previous one, you can do the same thing, but for your entire story. Starting from the beginning, re-outline the story scene-by-scene and/or chapter-by-chapter, picking out what the main “beats” and most important themes are, and then re-read your draft and make sure you’re hitting those clearly. Consider cutting out the pieces of your story that don’t contribute to those, and definitely cut the pieces that distract from those key moments (unless, of course, the distraction is the point.)
- Re-read a section you think could be cut and see if any sentences snag your attention. Poke at that bit until you figure out why – often, it’s because the sentence is unnecessary, poorly worded, unclear, or otherwise superfluous. You can often rewrite the sentence to be clearer, or cut the sentence completely without negatively impacting your work.
- Be prepared to cut your darlings; even if you love a sentence or dialog exchange or paragraph, if you are working to a strict word count and it doesn’t add anything, it may have to go, and that’s okay…even though yes, it will hurt, always, no matter how experienced a writer you are. (Tip? Save your original draft, and/or make a new word doc where you safely tuck your darlings in for the future. Second tip? If you really, really love it…find a way to save it, but understand that to do so, you’ll have to cut something else. It’s often wise to pick one or two favorites and sacrifice the rest to save the best ones. We are not saying “always cut your darlings.” That is terrible writing advice. Don’t always cut your darlings. Writing, and reading your own writing, should bring you joy, even when you’re doing it professionally.)
- If you’re having trouble recognizing what in your own work CAN be cut, try implementing the above strategies in different places – cut things, and then re-read, and see how it works, and if it works at all. Sometimes, you’ll realize…you didn’t need any of what you cut. Other times, you’ll realize…it no longer feels like the story you were trying to tell. Fiddle with it until you figure out what you need for it to still feel like your story, and practice that kind of cutting until you get better at recognizing what can and can’t go without having to do as much tweaking.
- Lastly…along the lines of the previous…understand that sometimes, cutting your story down to a certain word count will just be impossible. Some stories simply can’t be made very short, and others simply can’t be told at length. If you’re really struggling, it’s important to consider that your story just…isn’t going to work at that word count. And that’s okay. Go back to the drawing board, and try again – you’ll also get better at learning what stories you can tell, in your style, using your own writing voice, at different word counts. It’s not something you’ll just know how to do – that kind of estimating is a skill, just like all other writing abilities.
As with all our writing advice – there’s no one way to tackle cutting stories for length, and also, which of these strategies is most appropriate will depend on what kind of story you’re writing, how much over-length it is, what your target market is, your characters, and your personal writing style. Try different ones, and see which work for you – the most important aspect is to learn to read your own writing critically enough that you are able to recognize what you can cut, and then from that standpoint, use your expertise to decide what you should cut, which is definitely not always the same thing. Lots of details can be cut – but a story with all of the flavor and individuality removed should never be your goal.
Contributions to this post were made by @unforth, @jhoomwrites, @alecjmarsh, @shealynn88, @foxymoley, @willablythe, and @owlishintergalactic, and their input has been used with their knowledge and explicit permission. Thanks, everyone, for helping us consider different ways to shorten stories!
2 thoughts on “How to Edit an Over-Length Story Down to a Specific Word Count”
What a great post, though my problem usually happens the other way round, and that’s to actually MEET the word count for submissions. I always have much less words than I need, and that’s something I need to learn to get over. Maybe an idea for your next post? Thanks for sharing, by the way!
Oh, that one might be harder…adding length is it’s own set of challenges, especially deciding when it’s actually necessary, like…if you’ve already told the story you want to tell, adding more words can detract? But it also depends on how fleshed-out your first drafts are, since some people write fairly outline-y first drafts, and other folks…don’t. I’ll add it to our list of ideas for blog posts, definitely!!!