As a writing instructor and coach, I deal with manuscripts that may have received passes by agents, or are too long, or don’t seem to have a “voice” yet. As a writer, too, I often over-write by 10,000 to 20,000 words in search of my novel’s story. (My cozy mystery/romance manuscripts need to stay around 80-90,000 words.) Cutting 20,000 words is about 66 pages! (Using 300 words/page/12-point Times New Roman.)
To Polish Voice and Trim…Look at 1) Scene Hooks and 2) Clutter.
After your manuscript is done (or while writing Draft 1!), outline your scene hooks. Write the nugget of the hook on a single line of ruled paper, or highlight things on your screen. Find where momentum kicks in for each scene. Look for the spot where the character commits to their goal. How far into the scene do you find it? First line? Or two pages in? Circle those pages for possible condensing later.
Move on in this task…
You may have an action start for a scene. Good, but do you mess up the hook with too much info dumping or character thoughts interrupting the action? Too many usages of “said” and adverbs embellishing the action? Mark that area. Later, you’ll cut or move some or all interruptions into what’s called a “summary” area after an exciting stretch of action occurs.
Look for repetition or “reminders” of what occurred in a previous chapter. Sometimes a reminder is necessary, but overall, readers don’t forget as much as you fear. Keep going through the manuscript making your scene list. Once done, go back and challenge yourself to a few cuts or rearrangements of information.
Cut clutter. This is a fun exercise for a group to do. Bring the word counts to your next meeting or lunch and compare. Cutting clutter improves “voice” in an instant. Cut clutter even if your word count is good.
It’s typical for writers to remove 5,000 clutter words in a 300-page manuscript!
A recent client removed 7,000 words. That’s removing 20 or more pages of waste. Editors and readers don’t want to buy 20 meaningless pages, and agents know that, too. Tote up what you have for each word in the list below. Remove 80 percent. You may need 20 percent to retain or create the voice you want or to impart clear information.
But (Too often used to start sentences.)
And (Look for too many compound sentences stacking up on a page. (Also look for too many sentences starting with “And.”)
Common Clutter Words to Cut Easily:
Said (and substitutes)
Christine DeSmet is a founding member of WisRWA, a past Golden Heart finalist and winner, and the author of several novellas and mystery novels with romance. She also writes screenplays. Book 4 in her Fudge Shop Mystery Series set in Door County, Deadly Fudge Divas, is forthcoming this winter. She teaches novel master classes and online courses at University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies. firstname.lastname@example.org