The California Chainsaw Massacre: Prose Edition

I recently offered some suggestions to another writer about ways to cut prose to make word count. Some of us have no problem writing short stories, while some of us write epic-length pieces that pretty much crush the word requirement and then they’re left struggling to reach that dreaded word-count. So, here are a few tips to help you get down to that elusive number!

The first thing you need to do is be able to distance yourself from your prose. I think that’s probably the single hardest thing for any writer to do. Let’s face it, we love our stories, and we love even more how we’ve written it. The reason for this is that we might love that one passage, but we also have to look at it and decide if it is even necessary.

That’s part of the ‘fun’ of editing. I use ‘fun’ sarcastically there, because who really likes editing? Seriously, though, it’s not really fun to “kill your darlings” as Stephen King (was it him that said it?) likes to put it, but you have to do it. The good news is that once you learn how to detach from your prose and know how to take out what you don’t need, anything you write in the future will be that much stronger. So, it’s a win-win!

How do you go about removing what you don’t need? I don’t know. Don’t ask me. I can’t tell you. Only you and anyone that has read your story can tell you that. Here are some solid guidelines, though:

  • Does it further the plot?
  • Does it aid in plot development?
  • Is it necessary character development?

Remember, what’s totally awesome, random, and cool for you probably isn’t so exciting for the reader. Think about them first, and then think about the prose. Are you writing for them or for you? (Trick question)

Have you gone through and decided that you needed every paragraph and sentence and that if you cut any of it out it would be like cutting out your soul? Oh, man. Okay. Then we’re going to have to work extra hard with you.

The next thing you want to check is if you are using too many ‘extra’ words. What are extra words? Erm, those are extra words. Heh-heh-heh. No, seriously. The following is a list of extra words:

  • A
    • The dog ate a pie.
    • The dog ate pie.
  • An
    • It was an historic event!
    • The event was historic!
  • Others to remove: The, That, Which

You can remove these and other words without affecting your story. Again, doing this will make you a better writer in the end because it will force you to think of innovative ways of getting around it. The more you do it, the more you’ll do it while you’re writing, and your prose will usually come out much cleaner.

Condensing words is another effective way to reduce the word count. Sometimes you may have three or four words strung together in a needless description when a single word will do perfectly fine in its place. For example:

“Hi,” he said in a soft voice.

vs.

“Hi,” he whispered.

Another good way (and I’m terribly guilty of not following this advice) is to remove redundancies. There are times where we writers just get wordy. I don’t know if it’s because we just like the sound of our own inner (or outer voice), but we tend to add extra things to obvious actions. For example:

She knelt down and set the roses on the headstone.

She knelt and set the roses on the headstone.

The crimson blood poured down the wall.

The blood poured down the wall.

The fan blew air, which caused a stack of papers to fly off my desk.

The fan caused paper to fly off my desk.

Killing adjective and adverbs is another great way to slim down your fatty manuscript. While it’s true we really like those pretty entanglement of words, often times we don’t need them. For example:

He moved incredibly fast down the hallway!

He sprinted down the hallway.

She quickly turned around to see no one there.

She whipped around to see no one there.

Finally, I think one of the most effective ways is to use contractions! There’s no reason to split them apart unless your character or narrator can’t use them for some reason. Otherwise, it smoothens the sentence, and saves you all kinds of words. Most people read right over contraction, and a lot of the time, the reader will stumble on them if they aren’t because it feels so completely unnatural. Natural is what you’re going for (unless you’re not, of course)!

There you have it. Some simple ways to get your word count down. Are there other things you use to slim your prose? Let me and others know in the comments below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to holler at me!

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