Writers are natural storytellers. We love to create worlds and characters for readers to get lost in. However, we sometimes make the mistake of including too much!
So, what problem areas should writers look for when trimming down their manuscript? In this article, author and YouTuber Tara East gives us some tips.
A thin first draft may be the product of underwriting, including too little detail or action, and a bloated manuscript may be the result of overwriting, including too much! The following five tips are aimed at overwriters, but any manuscript could be improved through these suggestions.
Whether you are an underwriter or an overwriter, the quality of your prose is dependent upon your ability to provide enough information for the reader to comprehend the story, but not so much information that they become bogged down in detail.
A trim and purposeful story will engage readers. A drawn out and sloppy story won’t.
By cutting filter words, tightening sentences, reducing dialogue tags and combining two or more weak characters or scenes together, your writing will become precise, snappy and attention-grabbing. Our ultimate goal as a storyteller is simple: keep the reader reading.
Here are some of the ways you can trim down your manuscript to improve into overall readability and engagement factor.
1. Cut filter words
Filter words are unnecessary words that act as a barrier between the reader and the story’s action. If you are writing in close third person, a common issue is having your main character narrate the actions of another character.
For example, Lauren saw Anthony open the door. This description has greater impact when written as Anthony opened the door.
You may think that removing Lauren’s POV is pretty insignificant in the face of an entire manuscript, but filter words can quickly add up, especially if you’re writing a 150 000 word epic fantasy!
Cutting filter words will not only have a huge impact on your word count, it will also improve the quality of your prose.
Some key filter words to be on the lookout for are: really, very, just, began, started, sudden, see, look, hear, wonder, feel and think.
Whenever these words appear in a sentence, you can usually rewrite it to better effect. For example, She felt really sad, packs a lot more punch when written as, She was devastated, alternatively, you can show the emotion, She crumbled to her knees.
2. Tighten your sentences
Not to be confused with reducing filter words, tightening up your sentences means cutting unnecessary descriptions, purple prose or repetitive sentences.
The slick black snake gleamed in the morning light as it slithered through the dry grass towards the small, brown, field mouse.
Now, here’s the same sentence tightened up.
The black snake slithered towards the field mouse.
The revised sentence is communicating the same message, but with far fewer words.
Yes, description is important, but you don’t need to spend 22 words describing how a snake is about to eat a mouse. Be selective with your description and make it count. The reader doesn’t need to know the time of day or that the grass is dry in order to comprehend the scene – so cut it.
Another common mistake is repetitive sentences or phrases; lines that say the same things twice, only in slightly different ways. See what I did there?
Some common repetitive phrases are:
- first priority
- I personally
- repeat again
Another example of a repetitive sentence is: She left via the front door and stepped into the morning light. Leaving the warmth of the house, Becky couldn’t recall when she’d last watched a sunrise. You only need one of these sentences – personally I prefer the latter – to tell the reader that Becky has left the house to watch the sunrise.
Another example is including too many body movements. He lifted his head, looked to the left and right, swiped a curl of hair from his eyes and stepped out onto the street. If you have a tendency to make even mundane movements cinematic, then your word count is going to balloon and the prose will be tedious to read.
3. Unnecessary scenes
It’s time to put on your editing hat and ask yourself some hard questions.
Is that four-page dream sequence really necessary?
Is that page long description of your main character’s breakfast routine important?
Maybe they are. But do these descriptions and events warrant this much space on the page?
The general rule is that a scene should either move the plot forward or show character development. Ideally, it should do both.
If you have a scene that is entirely built around showing character development, revealing backstory or giving the reader a glimpse into the protagonist’s interior life, consider moving that into an action scene.
Let’s say your protagonist is sitting on the couch, talking to her best friend about how insecure she feels about being the chosen one. What if you trimmed this conversation down and fit it into the scene where the protagonist is hanging with her team of misfits’ and formulating a plan. Now your scene is working on two levels, the misfits' plan is moving the plot forward and the protagonist’s self-doubt is revealed.
Of course, not every action scene needs these moments of reflection and not every ‘slow’ scene required exterior action. It’s important that the pace of your novel varies: a novel that is all interior is boring and a novel that is all exterior is hollow. The point is, you as the novelist need to be in control of, and intentional about, the purpose of each scene.
If an interior scene can be combined with an external action scene and both would benefit from this revision: do it!
4. Unnecessary characters
You may think that all your characters are necessary, but this is not always the case.
Let’s say that the protagonist is constantly making fun of her best friend’s little brother, but this best friend is also their love interest. In this case, what purpose is the little brother really serving?
If the only purpose of these interactions is to bring comic relief, then consider combining the role of the little brother with that of the best friend.
Not only does this declutter your side characters, it also provides opportunities for the protagonist to playfully interact with the best friend/love interest.
5. Cut down dialogue tags
If two characters are having a conversation, then you don’t need to finish every line of dialogue with he or she said. Yes, you do need to include some dialogue tags, but if you place those attributions in the right place, then your reader will have no problem following along.
Here’s an example:
“Wow! Filter words? I never heard of that before, but it’s totally a thing. My protagonist is always wondering and feeling,” Martin said.
Claire grinned, “Mine too! I’ve started trimming my WIP last night, and I’m already down five thousand words.”
“Ah, I thought your short story was six thousand?”
“Zip it, jerk.”
Whether you are an overwriter or an underwriter, all manuscript can be improved through the cutting of filter words, tightening sentences, reducing dialogue tags and combining weak scenes or characters.
Trimming a wordy draft can feel like an arduous task, but the work will be strengthened if you cut out the unnecessary information and detail.
Your job as a storyteller is to tell a good story. Don’t let the gem that is the core of your narrative become tarnished by excessive prose. Trim your story and gift your readers with a novel that they cannot put down.
Tara East is a writer, blogger and YouTuber. She maintains a weekly writing blog where she reflects upon the creative process; providing advice, tips, tricks, and inspiration in the hopes that these posts will help others on their writing journey. Tara has four degrees and three self-published YA novels under her belt. To find out more, or to sign up for her weekly newsletter, go to taraeast.com.
Natasha Raulerson says
Absolutely love this post! It’s a really great resource. Thanks so much for sharing.
Great post, Joanna! Really appreciate your posts and those of your guests.
Nice! I’m struggling with overwriting and my brain tries to convince me that adding more content will make things better. (See what I have to deal with?!)
Your thoughts on combining scenes and external/internal/action; how would you do that if you also wanted to work with Dwight Swains scene-sequel structure?
I think, that structure advocates for the separation of action and reaction (internal scenes?) Or?
Though, the idea of combining them is intriguing (not that my—or anyone else’s—writing actually turns out that clean cut this or that anyway… should they even?)
Cutting dialog tags should still make sure the dialog does not turn into “talking heads” or a screen/stage play type of dialog where all you get is who says what.
There are many good resources on dialog tags (I think it is called) and how to use them to center the dialog in the room and have the characters interact with the room / the props in it.
I just wanted to highlight the issue of having too few dialog tags as well.
MR LONG WINDED LEO says
This was very helpful! Writing is not something I have any kind of professional aspirations for (the stuff I write is too dark to be “Commercially viable”) but even if it is “just a hobby” that I do for myself and my fellow aging headbangers, I still want my stories, song lyrics and poems to be as tight as possible. Writing dark requires a lot of detail! It also requires strong, visible characters. This combination is quite the (inverted) cross I must bear. So articles that give you the best tools to use make the burden much easier to saddle. So thanks!