Why Yes, Yes, I Can Take Twelve Thousand Words Out of Your Manuscript

You know—that manuscript you said would be impossible to shorten, even though it is nearly thirteen thousand words more than your publisher desires. Even though I’ve already explained about running the P&L and determining cost of goods and how the price is set when the book is contracted and changing these things—with Amazon, with distributors, with the buyers—practically takes an Act of Congress. That manuscript.

But you know, we’ve talked about this already. Probably the number-one problem agents and editors see is the manuscript is too long. And word count really, really matters to publishers—again, page count determines retail price—and to consumers too. Your publisher didn’t make these numbers up out of whole cloth, you know.

Anyway, please don’t tell me you’ve been over this with a fine-toothed comb and there’s no way it can be cut any further, because I know it can. John McIntyre over at the Baltimore Sun says, “Can’t be cut? Son, I could cut the Lord’s Prayer.”* I’m going to use that line from now on. :)

It’s true, my friend.

Twelve thousand words? How? you say. I don’t intend to part with a single scene. Relax. I don’t intend to cut any scenes either. I’m just going to tighten up everything. I’m going to take those words out one or two or three at a time, maybe a whole sentence here or there, and you won’t even miss them.

I’m going to start with all those extra thats and ofs and unnecessary dialogue tags. There’s quite a bit of overwriting here, so I’m going to tone that down. Don’t worry, I’ll be very careful with your voice. What I’m cutting isn’t voice—it’s repetition and logistics. I’m going to take a good hard look at your adverbs, and I’ll cut useless detail. And all that telling you’re doing? Gone!

While I’m at it, I’ll remove redundancies—not just repetitious words, but things you’ve already told us, concepts you’ve already explained, the continual reminding of who a character is or what his relationship is to the protagonist. Repetition of things we already know has the side effect of interrupting or stepping on the action of a scene. So you’re getting in your own way.

I can do this thing for a couple reasons. First, I know something you haven’t fully grokked yet: your readers are smart and they’re paying attention. Don’t overthink this, just run with it. If something’s not clear, Your Editor will say so. I can do this, also, because I’m not as emotionally invested as you. To me and my gimlet eye this is, simply, extreme line editing. And it will make the story better.

I’m actually the developmental editor on this project, though, so this is just a little something extra I’m throwing in because the publisher asked me to … after you said it couldn’t be done. Dude! Don’t you know that’s, like, waving a red gauntlet? :)

You’re welcome.

* You can see how he does it in The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing (Apprentice House, Loyola University Maryland, 2013).


Tweet: Relax. I’m going to take words out 1 or 2 at a time, & you won’t even miss them.
Tweet: The number-one problem agents and editors see is the manuscript is too long. So cut it.
Tweet: To me & my gimlet eye this is just extreme line editing. It will make the story better.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Marti Pieper says:

    So. So. Very. Very. True (and yes, we could remove all but the final word in that string). I’m in the process of cutting 10K from a memoir I’m writing for someone else, and I don’t want to tell the author because I know she’ll think I’m destroying her story. I’m not. I’m doing just what you described and making it better, tighter, and more expressive of her heart. I also can’t believe how many “As it happened” and other unnecessary phrases I’ve found in my own writing. Then again, I love finding them, because they make my cuts easy and obvious.

    • Jamie says:

      It’s one thing if it’s voice. I have all SORTS of extraneous stuff in my blog posts, but they are intentional. But the project I refer to here wasn’t a voice situation. People think it’s hard (and, well, it IS in one way) but most of the cuts were obvious. And the author was thrilled with the result.

  2. Marti Pieper says:

    I do understand that. I’m not removing voice, either (or my interpretation of her voice, anyway). But it’s surprised (and pleased) me how much extraneous stuff I’ve removed from my own writing. I know this doesn’t exactly fit the point of your blog, since you weren’t talking about self-editing. However, I’m convinced that editing for others has made me better at tightening my own work when needed (which it is in this case, since I have to cut words before submission).