10 Tips for Trimming a Lengthy Manuscript

redpenI’ve talked before about standard word counts for different genres, but what do you do when your manuscript is way off target? How do you change the word count without dramatically altering the story? Today, let’s take a look at trimming manuscripts that are too long, and next week we’ll discuss fleshing out short ones.

If your novel is too long, the process of revising it may seem daunting. How do you know what to cut and what to keep? How do you tighten your story without losing all of the parts that you love? Here are my suggestions for trimming your manuscript:

  1. Watch for exposition

Excessive exposition is a common issue in lengthy manuscripts. Do you have any long passages of description or other exposition? How much of that description do you really need? How about explanations or info-dumps? Can those details be woven into existing sentences instead? Or eliminated entirely?

  1. Cut unnecessary backstory

Writers sometimes try to include too much of their characters’ backstory, which both slows down the pace of the actual story and lengthens the manuscript considerably. Consider how much backstory your readers really need. Do you include a lot of flashbacks, or lengthy sections describing backstory for multiple characters? This is another area where less is often more.

  1. Quicken the pacing

I find that some writers are aware of places where the story is slow, but don’t understand how to improve it. When it comes to pacing, consider how many pages it takes for certain events or plot points to occur. Too little happening in too few pages is the cause of slow pacing. For example, let’s say your character needs to receive a letter that will be important to the plot later on. You can’t cut that scene, because it’s an important plot development. But what you can do is examine how many pages that plot point is taking up. Does the receipt of the letter really need to take ten pages? Or even five? How much of that scene do you need? By making sure that the number of pages devoted to an event is equivalent to its importance, you’ll keep the pacing moving quickly.

  1. Examine the narrative drive

Every single chapter—and every single scene—should drive your story forward in some way. Is the character always working toward a goal? Does every scene have conflict, tension, and stakes? Do they add to both plot and characterization? Can you remove that scene without affecting the core of your story? Cut or combine any scenes that aren’t pulling their weight.

  1. Remove extra characters

I’ve noticed that many writers—including myself—have a tendency to include more characters than are really needed for the story. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creating characters and forget that they must have an important role to play in the story. But too many characters is confusing to readers and also contributes to that lengthy word count. Consider removing some of them and saving them for a later story. Or combine several characters into one if their roles in the story are similar. Keep in mind that if you can cut a character and not change much of the story, that’s a sign that they’re not significant enough to the narrative.

  1. Cut extraneous subplots and plot points

Take a careful look at how many subplots you have, and how detailed the primary plot is. How much do you really need to tell this story? It’s possible that you’re trying to cram too much into one manuscript. Save those extra subplots for a different story if they’re not integral to this one.

  1. Start in the right place

I see a lot of manuscripts that start chapter one way before the story itself actually begins. Are you starting in the right place? Can you delete or condense the first chapter(s)? Try to start as close to the inciting incident of your story as possible, and cut the extra backstory.

  1. Examine your writing style

A lengthy manuscript is often the result of an overly wordy writing style. While there’s nothing wrong with this stylistic preference, it’s important to tighten up your writing by cutting unnecessary words. Look at individual sentences—are they overly convoluted or wordy? Where can you simplify? What sentences or paragraphs can be cut entirely? If you’re struggling to trim, try this exercise: go over each page and find five words that you can cut. Then find five more. You’d be surprised by how much you can cut just by considering how many words you really need.

  1. Eliminate repetition

This may seem obvious, but be sure that you’re looking for repetition on every level—not just the words that you use, but also the ideas. Are you repeating certain plot points? How about description and imagery? Or your character’s internal thoughts? How about descriptions of events that your reader already knows? Just say it once—no need to say the same thing again in a different way.

  1. Start scenes later and end them sooner

You might have unnecessary transitions at the beginning and end of each chapter or scene, so pay close attention to where scenes begin and end. A little transition is often necessary, but be careful not to overdo it.

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What do you think? Do you tend to write overly long drafts? How do you trim a lengthy manuscript? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-Questions to Ask Beta Readers

-Problems with Prologues

-7 Common Mistakes I See as an Editor

-All About Word Count

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2 thoughts on “10 Tips for Trimming a Lengthy Manuscript

  1. J A Brown says:

    I have been writing for over ten years with my story lengths going from 30,000 (my first children’s story) – to what will be 90,000 when I’ve eventually finished editing. I over write. I over write terribly and if I hadn’t started trimming my young adult novel, it would have been well over 160,000. It’s currently 113,000. As you can see I have quite a way to go until I reach my goal. The best thing to do is not to over write in the first place, but that’s isn’t always easy. Your advice is great and I already do all of what you say.

    Liked by 1 person

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