Pitch Wars Revision Advice: Cutting Words
Took a couple weeks off from this series while I work on my own revisions (al….most…there……) but I’ve been seeing a lot of questions come up in the #askmentor twitter chats about word count, so I wanted to share my own strategies for trimming down your manuscript.
I say this a lot, but I’m a chronic overwriter. Like a lot of writers, I struggle with self-criticism and the “internal editor” who’s always giving me shit about choosing the just-so word and the exact right place to include a detail in the scene. It’s really easy for me to get caught up in that voice, and then I fret so much about writing things perfectly that I just…don’t write at all.
For me, there is only one solution to this: word vomit.
I just spew every random thought and idea I have onto the page without stopping to think. If there’s a point I want to convey about a character, I beat that dead horse mercilessly. I’ll harp on the same thing twelve different times, because I know ONE of those options will work, and I won’t know which one it is until I go back and re-read the whole thing later.
I’m also a very voice-y writer. My Pitch Wars draft of You’re Next (before I edited it down) was around 110,000 words, and I used to joke that at least 40% of that was just Flora being sarcastic. It’s a major selling point of the book–I mean, if you don’t like Flora I really just don’t know if we can be friends–but it also makes it hard to write super sparse, Hemingway-esque prose. That’s not a bad thing! But we don’t have unlimited words to spare, either.
Add on top of that, You’re Next was trying to balance two somewhat conflicting things: a super traditional, fast-paced mystery structure that was ALSO very heavy on character relationships and emotions. In a lot of classic mysteries, we barely know anything about the detective. But I needed to spend tens of thousands of words on the very complex (frequently imploding) relationships Flora has with her mother, grandfather, best friend, sister, two love interests (one former and one current), and the larger social community of her school.
All this to say: that’s a lot of stuff to pack into one book! I went through some of my old records to grab these word count stats for the main revisions I did on You’re Next:
- The manuscript I subbed to PW was 94,000 words–but honestly that doesn’t matter because I rewrote the entire thing from scratch! Maybe 5 scenes survived from that draft.
- Pitch Wars: ~110,000 cut down to 86,000 – this is the draft that signed my agent
- Agent Revision: added 15k (101,000 words) then cut it back down to 88,000 – this is the draft that sold to Jimmy Patterson
- Jimmy Patterson Revision 1: added 11k (99,000 words) and then cut it down to 93,000
- Jimmy Patterson Revision 2: added 6k (99,000 words) then cut it down to 94,000
As you can see, I have never done a revision where I didn’t need to cut at least a few thousand words. I had to get really good at doing it, or pretty much just resign myself to a life of misery.
So here’s how I do it. First of all, you want to (duh) know how much you need to cut. This means knowing the conventions for your age group & genre. Remember that these are changing all the time, so make sure you’re getting your information from a good source. I got the following numbers from the Bookends Agency:
Contemporary YA: 60,000-85,000 words, ideal length 80,000 words
YA SFF: 70,000-100,000 words, ideal length 90,000 words
But again, these are just approximations. They’re good to keep in mind as goals, but clearly there are exceptions. Obviously the agents I queried didn’t slam the door shut on my YA contemporary mystery for being 86k.
But I had that 85,000 number in mind when I was revising–I was trying to get there, and ultimately could not find any more words to cut. I felt okay about that. Having mine at 86k, I felt, showed that I understood the conventions of the genre and was operating within the general realm of reason.
So during that first revision, that meant I was aiming to cut 25,000 words to get from 110 to 85k. That’s a lot! I’ll be honest, if you need to do cuts of that magnitude…let’s say anything north of 20k…you probably need to think about whole scenes or sections you could lose or streamline significantly.
But that’s not going to get you the whole way there. I think I managed to lose around 8k just through those types of major cuts. That meant I still needed to lose another 17,000 words.
It was at that time that a friend gave me the best advice I’ve ever received on cutting words: take the total number of words you need to cut, and divide it by the number of pages in your manuscript. Now you know the number of words you need to cut per page.
At the time, my manuscript was around 360 pages. That meant I needed to lose around 48 words per page. That seemed so much easier than cutting 17,000 words!! I rolled this process into my final proofread of the manuscript. As I was reading it over, I checked every sentence for extraneous words. Even one word cut from a single sentence was a dent in my 48 for that page–this is a great way to train yourself to be merciless about filler words.
At the start of each chapter, I calculated what my total cut words goal would (48 words per/page * the number of pages in the chapter), and at the end of the chapter I checked to see if I’d met the goal. I used to track this messily by hand in my notebook:
But eventually, I learned the truth & the way of a spreadsheet (this is from one of my agent revisions):
You’ll notice that I did not always meet the goal for the chapter! There were absolutely chapters that could not be cut down all the way to my goal. But the point was once I started looking for individual words to cut, rather than big chunks or scenes, suddenly they were everywhere. As you can see in the second spreadsheet, there were way more chapters where I was surpassing the goal than falling short–it all worked out in the wash by the end.
As I’m doing this read-through, I’m also tracking one other thing: overused words. If I see things that can definitely be cut, I just go ahead and do that during the first pass. But sometimes a word might seem totally fine & necessary on one page, but then I realize I’ve used “still” 146 times, and surely not all of those are needed.
So as I’m doing my words per page read through, any words that snag my eye and make me go “hmmmm I feel like I’ve been seeing that one a lot lately” I write down in my notebook and keep moving. A lot of these words are the usual suspects: that, just, so, etc. But there are also words and phrases that I might not even be using that much, but they’re distinctive enough that I want to be careful about it. In one of my drafts of You’re Next I used the word “vicious” six times. Not bad, but it’s a pretty specific word that I wanted to be intentional about. Likewise, there are often words that become lazy shortcuts for character voice. Flora, the main character, loved to say “actually” and “pretty much” all the damn time–nothing wrong with it, but sometimes those were just easy filler words to indicate “voicey-ness” without having to be more original.
Now that I’ve done this a few times, I actually start keeping this list much earlier on, while I’m still drafting. If I’m writing a scene and I’m like, “gee, sure seems like I’ve used the word ‘little’ a bunch in this manuscript,” I just go, “cool, that’s a problem for Future Kylie,” make a note and keep moving.
So once you’ve finished this pass through the manuscript, you do a CTRL+F for every word on your list and see how many times you’re actually using each one. Here’s part of my list for one of my You’re Next drafts:
Next, I go through and CTRL+F each one again, evaluating every single usage in the book. Yup, I go through every single use of the word “that”–all 894 of them–and make sure each one is absolutely necessary. I mean, “that” is a pretty basic word…a lot of them end up staying in! But it’s also a good way to identify when you’re using them out of laziness or imprecision, versus genuine necessity. And if you’ve read my post on filtering, this is a good time to tackle that CTRL+F project as well.
It’s worth noting that I sometimes manage to meet my word count goal during that first pass, when I’m just focused on trimming a certain number of words per page. Even when that happens, I still do the overused words CTRL+F pass as well. Overused words are overused words–just because you’ve met goal doesn’t mean you need them!
At this point, if I’m still a ways off from my goal, I might reconsider if there are any bigger scenes or sections that could be cut. One thing that might help you identify potential flab is to look at a standard beatsheet–I highly recommend Save the Cat Writes a Novel, which breaks down all the important milestones for each act of your story, and can help you identify things like “wow, it’s taking me more than 25% of the book to get to the inciting incident.” So then I go poking around in that first 25%, asking myself is all of this really necessary, or do I just like this scene because it’s fun? Be. merciless.
And that’s it! Most of the time, between those first two passes I manage to cut the number of words that I need–or close to. Again, I’ll emphasize that your genre conventions are good goals, but not hard-and-fast rules. If you’re ruthless in these types of cuts and still just can’t get past, say, 86k instead of 85, or 102k vs 100…I think you’re probably fine. It’s clear that you understand the ballpark for your genre, and that you’ve made an effort to keep your word count within reason.
I hope this is helpful to everyone as you go into your final edits! Don’t forget, you can find my Pitch Wars mentor wishlist here, and I’m always happy to answer PW questions on twitter (feel free to DM or @ me) or the Pitch Wars forums (you’ll need to login to see my post). Good luck, and I’m SO EXCITED to see your stories in my inbox.
Kylie Schachte is a graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and an active member of the Pitch Wars online community as both an alum & mentor. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, cat, and giant dog. YOU’RE NEXT is her first book.
Purchase You’re Next