Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Big Picture, Little Picture

Word count. It’s one of those big little things, isn’t it? In the overall craft of writing, it’s not something that is emphasized; and with good reason what with all the plot, characterization, dialogue and etc to be mastered. But, from what I’ve read, for some agents word count can be a cause for query insta-rejection. I believe you should write as many words as is necessary to effectively tell your story, no more and no less. At the same time, I also believe that if you can do something to give an agent one less reason to reject you, why not give it a go? I mean, as long you’re revising your manuscript anyway.

I’ve worked hard to get my word count down. What was once 126,000 words, is now somewhere in the neighborhood of 103,000. Most of that was accomplished by big-picturing things. Is this scene really necessary or does it simply accomplish the same goals as this other, slightly better scene? Does this description of the setting really have to be seven-pages long? Did I really describe that character at length in two different places?

The best big picture piece of advice I came across this year, which helped me cut out a hugeormous chunk of words, came from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter eight, Maass talks about set up. Basically, he says get rid of it. I thought about it, looked at my first few chapters, and then had a revelation. By golly! The first fifty-sixty pages weren’t nothing but a bunch of set up. While there were important ideas that I’d have to work into other parts of the manuscript, those pages could go away and wouldn’t be missed. That was at least 15,000 words gone in one fell swoop!

That’s not to say that deleting one sentence or one word at a time can’t be effective. For me this is especially true when I’ve written something in first person and have gotten a little too comfortable with, like, the conversational tone, you know.

This past year I’ve come across a couple of different posts and forum threads about fillers words. (Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten where exactly I’d found them so while I remember the lessons, I can’t link you to their sources.)

Upon compiling my list of filler words, I did a search in my Word document based on that list just to see how many of each I used. Here were some of my biggest offenders:

Just: 453

Like: 627

That: 1,462! (To be fair there are a lot of times that using “that” is justified. *shifty eyes, shifty eyes*)

I then used the "find" function to locate each word individually and made the difficult decision on a case by case basis of whether or not my entire manuscript would fall apart if I let go of this one “just” or “like” or whichever word I happened to be considering.

Now, any time I’m re-reading my manuscript I have a list of words I try to keep an eye out for. I’ve added to the list specific things I’m particularly guilty of.

The Usual Suspects:


There were

They were


Kind of



You know

I mean




Kevin Spacey

I guess








Adverbs ending “ly”

“But” or “And” at the start of a sentence.

Additional suggested filler words that didn’t turn up a whole lot in my manuscript:

At all





Find out how many times you’ve used these words in your manuscript. This only goes to show what little words can do!

But here’s my favorite tip about cutting words that has helped me focus on the little picture. A while ago Janice Hardy posted a blog about cutting down your word count. Her suggested strategy was, “If you need to cut words, decide how many you need to cut, then divide that by the number of pages [in your manuscript].”

It’s such a simple and straightforward approach that I never in a million years would have though to do it. I decided to try this out in order to get my manuscript under the 100,000 mark. After all the cutting I’d already done, finding another 3,000 words to give their final notice felt like as big an undertaking as cutting 23,000 words. I did the math and it turns out I only need to get rid of seven or eight words per page. ONLY SEVEN OR EIGHT WORDS! How super doable is that? So super doable that I’ve been getting rid of way more words per page than my quota requires. Even on an end-of-chapter page that only had three or four lines total, I still found a handful of words I didn’t need. Think about it. Doesn't "he said" work just as well as, if not better than, "he told me"? Bam! Minus one word from your tally.

A personal tip: I started from the last page and worked backwards page by page. This puts things out of the flow of the narrative and allows me to be more objective on a line-by-line basis.

There’s a value to this practice that goes beyond cutting words. As I’ve been deciding which scenes, chapters, sentences and words can go, I couldn’t help but pay attention to and form a critical opinion on how all the different macro- and micro-pieces of my manuscript do or don’t work together. Making an effort to cut words not only gives me a more attractive word count, it forces me to look at the quality of my writing on two levels: Big picture and little picture.

What about you, my fellow writers? What have been your favorite writing/editing tips of 2010?


  1. Well, I can't say I've been doing a lot of editing this year, though I did take my first stab at it. And your list of filler words? Yep. Same here. Especially Kevin Spacey!

    I'll have to try Janice Hardy's trick, when I get to the editing stage again. :)

  2. Kevin Spacey is hard to resist.

    I forgot to link to Janice Hardy's article when I posted this earlier. It's linked now if you wanted to get her full post on the subject.

    Good luck on the edits when you return to it! Some people hate re-writing but I kind of love it...cause I'm a dork?