Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Your Manuscript on a Diet

By David Sharp

I like to think my writing is succinct. That doesn’t mean it is. I recently learned at the NCW Conference that editors frown at manuscripts more than 90,000 words. Especially from debut authors. Mine stood at 100,000. I now had the equivalent of five chapters to cut. Yikes! Where to begin…

My manuscript was fat. Now, I could have whined that I had world-building elements, or that I had a lot of story to pack into those pages. Both are true. But if 90,000 words is the competitive length, I wanted my story to run on lean muscle when it sits on a shelf in the same store as all the New York Times Bestsellers. Time to hit the treadmill.


Nigel, we're losing altitude.
Cut a few more adverbs loose,
would you?
I really like adverbs. I know they’re a bad habit, but I totally use them anyway. Unfortunately, they are often unnecessary. They’re like sprinkles on donuts. They don’t really add to the taste, but they absolutely add to the calories. It’s easy to feel they improve clarity or description and occasionally they do. Use them only when they are completely essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Prepositional Phrases
On the whole, we use prepositional phrases for clarity. In the writing process, they can add to your word count more than adverbs. Use them lightly in your writing. Readers can infer the meaning of the sentence on their own without them. In your own work, be especially mindful of introductory prepositional phrases. Remember, like adverbs, prepositional phrases can be necessary for clarity. The trick is determining when you need them.

Redundancies are paired words that don’t add any meaning. Completely eliminate them from your writing. If two words mean the exact same thing, you don’t need them both. Redundancies can be tricky to find since they exist in common everyday speech. Learn to recognize them and your writing will evolve over time.

Flex your creative muscle,
not your creative flab.
Trim that manuscript!
Empty Words
Just lose them. They add no meaning whatsoever. So get rid of them. This includes the phrase “There are.” Better ways exist.

Unnecessary Scenes
These are tough, but eliminating an entire scene can cut a lot of words. To determine whether a scene is necessary, I describe what that scene supplies to the story in one sentence. “The iceberg hits the Titanic causing the ship to sink.” Can the plot live without it? Nope. That scene better stay. “Passengers get bored waiting for their watery demise and play shuffleboard.” We don’t need that one. In my manuscript, I noticed a scene that initiates a plot device a character later reports in two lines. Those two lines could stand in for the entire scene, and now they do.  

There are always exceptions. My manuscript still has some adverbs, prepositional phrases and empty words, and so does this article. But now they are deliberate. Do you have an overweight manuscript? I culled 10,000 words from mine. For more tips on how to get your manuscript in shape, check out these additional resources: 

The 90,000-word Sweet Spot

25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy Common Redundancies

1 comment:

April Moore said...

Excellent post, David. You pointed these things out in a way that makes it easy to see where to trim the fat. Thanks!

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