Editing Process · Uncategorized

Tips to Tighten Prose (And Reduce Word Count)

Whether you want to focus your writing or you have a target word count to get down to, tightening your prose can strengthen your writing. For me, I have a 115K YA fantasy draft (Masked) that I am trying to get down to the 90K-110K range. Rather than cutting out whole scenes, I have been exploring ways to cut out words on a small scale. Just think, in a 400 page draft, if you cut out ten words a page, that would bring the word count down by 4K. Just ten words. Maybe that’s a sentence, a prepositional phrase, or a few words here and there. Either way, it can be done easily. Here are some tips on doing so.

1. Combine sentences

  • Oftentimes a whole paragraph can be reduced down to a sentence. Don’t believe me?
    • Example: “The man was tall and thin with wavy, black hair that hung over face. His skin was pale and gaunt. His eyes, green and wide. They stood out in contrast to his skin. He wore a black robe over his thin frame. It clung tight to his skin.”
    • Now let’s reduce it to one sentence. “The tall, thin man, dressed in a black tight-fitting robe, had a curtain of wavy black hair and enormous green eyes, which shone out of his gaunt face like jewels in sand.” That’s 16 words less! Have I mentioned editing is magic? Well, it is.
  • Take advantage of “which” “who” and “that” phrases. Or use appositives and dashes to cram in more information. This can seriously reduce your word count.
  • Watch out for sentences that mean the same thing. This happens when we feel like a character’s thoughts should take an entire paragraph. So we write “She couldn’t believe what he had just said. Had he actually just insulted her father? He must be crazy. How could he even say that?” So repetitive. That can be reduced to two sentences, maybe even one.

2. Shorten your sentences. (Simplify!)

  • A common problem, in fantasy writing especially, is that writers use more words to make the prose sound fancier. While sometimes it does work to that effect, most of the time it just muddles the meaning of a sentence. This isn’t 19th century England. Most of today’s readers want to understand a sentence the first time they read it.
  • So what do I mean by a muddled sentence? Well, this could be a sentence with a lot of words that could be verbs or a lot of gerunds.
    • Example: “Readers prefer reading that which understanding and meaning deem tried and true.”
    • Huh? Did that make sense? Let’s clarify it. “Readers prefer reading things that make sense.” And look 5 words shorter!
  • Another problem: too many prepositional phrases. If you have more than two prepositional phrases in a row, you might want to consider dropping the third. Oftentimes you can reduce that third phrase to an adjective and stick it before the subject.
    • Example: “The castle in the middle of the city near the ocean with great white towers was magnificent.”
    • Too muddled. Try some adjectives. “The magnificent, white castle sat in the middle of the city near the ocean.” Or better yet, simplify further. “Magnificent, white towers rose up beside the ocean.”

3. Use Stronger Verbs

  • There are many occasions where verb choice holds you back. Why say “He opened the door suddenly and with great force” when you can say “He jerked the door open”?

4. Cut Out Those Filter Words

  • I did a post here on filter words, and that alone has significantly tightened my writing. (I also have a section in that post called “Combating Wordiness” with additional tips.) Taking out filters and overused words can do a lot for your story. Words to pay special attention to: “just” “felt” “looked”

5. Cut Out The Cliches and Idioms

  • These are phrases that creep into our writing because we think in them. Phrases like “for the most part,” “mark my words,” “at the drop of the hat,” “beat around the bush,” “cost an arm and a leg,” etc. All of these phrases can be reduced to one word (or cut out entirely). That’s right. One word.

6. Stop Handing Out Looks on a Silver Platter

  • What I mean by this is sentences like this: “He gave me a nasty look.” “She gave me a sweet smile.” “He gave the king a solemn bow.” These are quite similar to filter words. While they are perfectly acceptable in writing and they do not annoy as much as some other constructions, they add a lot of unnecessary words. Also they can border on vague. One of my pet peeves is this phrase: “He gave me a look.” No details. Just a look. I have no idea what that means. Come on. You can be more specific than that. “He sneered.” “She smiled sweetly.” “He bowed to the king.” “He grimaced.” etc.

7. Don’t Repeat. Summarize.

  • This happens when a characters recounts events the reader just saw to another character who wasn’t there. Since the reader knows what happened, skip the recounting part and write something like “She recounted the events to him, his eyes growing wider with each shocking detail.” Then go ahead and include the character’s reaction.

8. Use Contractions

  • NaNoWriMo might have trained you not to use these. All those tricks you used to up your work count, you need to forget them now. Contractions are great, especially in dialogue. People speak in contractions, even think in them. Go back through Old English and Middle English and much of those writings used contractions. Shakespeare used plenty of contractions! Just find ones that fit the tone of your story.

9. Limit Direct Address

  • How often do you say your friends’ names when you’re talking to them? I promise you, it’s not as often as you would think. Cutting down on direct address can tighten the writing and make it appear more natural, and isn’t that the goal?

10. Cut Down on the ‘Said’ Phrases

  • This does not mean cut them all out! Read through and make sure it is clear who is speaking. If it is clear, then you can cut out the ‘said’ phrase. It’ll make the dialogue faster to read and easier to understand. J.K. Rowling is especially good at this. I’m never in doubt about who is speaking, even when it’s going back and forth.

Tips to Tighten Prose (And Reduce Word Count) Whether you want to focus your writing or you have a target word count to get down to, tightening your prose can strengthen your writing.

Part 2 coming in another week or two!

What did you think of this post? Any tips of your own to share? Please comment below!

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