How to Decrease Your Word Count

It’s a brilliant sensation when you get the itch to write. But even we know not every word we write will make it into the final draft of our novel. I typically write and rewrite the entire manuscript at least twice before even sending it to beta readers. So, what do you do when your book is too long and you need to decrease your word count?

What do you cut to decrease your word count when your book is too long?

This is the question countless writers ask themselves when reviewing their work. How are you supposed to cut ten thousand words from your manuscript? Or, if you’re an overwriter, how are you supposed to cut fifty thousand (or more) words?

Understanding what to cut from your book is a difficult pill to swallow. How are you supposed to be able to discern between fluff and actual substance? You wrote the words. They’re all needed, right?

The fact is that they aren’t all needed to tell your story. Furthermore, there’s a high probability that most of those words will get rewritten before you send your book to your professional editor. But to make the most out of the self-editing phase, there are three questions I always ask myself when reviewing an overwritten manuscript.

3 Questions to Determine What You Need to Cut from Your Book to Decrease Your Word Count

The essential first step is to read your book from front to back. Take a few days to read your book through the eyes of your reader. Note or highlight things that stick out to you, but don’t stop reading to edit your book. That begins a nasty cycle of reading a little and then spending the rest of your writing session editing a few pages.

Aside from the occasional highlight, these are the only three things you should be commenting on:

What is the goal of the chapter?

After you’ve read the chapter, the first thing you have to determine is the goal of the chapter. You’ll find that there’s very little substance and even less learned in the chapter if there’s no goal your characters are working towards. By determining the goal of the chapter, you can better determine the chapter’s necessity.

For example, you’ve written a scene where your protagonist and their friends go to the party. It’s a normal party and your character talks about drinking. But unless there’s something to be learned by your character going to this party, what’s the goal? Why have they decided to participate?

If you can’t figure out the goal of the scene, the rest of these questions aren’t going to make much sense.

Does that goal align with your character’s main goal or desire?

Once you’ve determined the main goal of the scene, ask yourself if that goal aligns with your protagonist’s main goal or desire. What does your protagonist seek? What are they trying to do?

Whether they’re trying to save an entire race from total annihilation, escape from a hidden underground hole, or simply find true love, each scene must drive your protagonist towards that goal. Imagine each scene as a steppingstone. Each steppingstone needs to lead you to the other side of the water—or resolution—or you’re going to end up knee-deep in the pond.

Even if your individual scenes have individual goals, that doesn’t mean they need to be in your story. Everything your protagonist does needs to point towards the story’s conclusion. What you don’t need are a bunch of scenes that don’t add up to your resolution.

What stands in your character’s way?

Everything your protagonist does has stakes, and while you don’t need to remind your readers every three minutes, there should be something that causes conflict. Whether that be internal or external, something needs to stand in the way. Something needs to be overcome.

Being aware that your book is too long is only the first step. After self-awareness comes cutting the words you worked so hard for. These three questions are a great way to determine whether a scene is necessary and, if it isn’t, you can probably cut it to decrease your word count.