Editing for word count can be the most freeing experiences an author can endure. Yes, we hate to think that even one word in our carefully crafted prose can be tossed away without a thought. We wonder how in the word tightening a sentence can make it zing, but it does.
I use word counts to take a deeper look at everything I’ve written. I want maximum effect with minimal words. (This is why the practice of writing flash fiction will enhance a novelist’s prose).
What do I eliminate?
Weasel Words such as very, that, just, etc. Go on line. Look up weasel words, and you’ll find lists. Be careful though. Take that for an example. Sometimes that is necessary to the understanding of a sentence. Don’t go through a manuscript with find and destroy all. Rather, look at each use and determine whether the word is necessary to the sentence.
Passive wording can stretch out our prose. Instead of writing he walked to the store we end of with some unnecessary words: he was walking to the store. Changing the structure not only eliminates an unnecessary word, it strengthens the sentence. Passive structures are made when we use the forms of to be (was, were, is, are, to be, etc.). As with weasel words, not all passive structures are evil entities that need to be vanquished. For example, if I have my character talking about what had occurred, he would say, “I was walking to the store when the guy jumped out of the alley and mugged me.”
Redundancies tend to show an author when they are not giving enough credit to the reader. Usually, one mention, unless it comes chapters apart, will garner the understanding of a reader. Eliminating these incessant reminders to the reader that something has happened can take large chunks of word count out of a manuscript.
Excessive description is an interest killer. Sorry Jane Austen fans, but in today’s quick paced lifestyle, flowery descriptions will bring out a yawn and a reach to turn out the lights. Instead, authors should closely examine the scene and describe only those details that are necessary to the understanding and/or plot of the story. For instance, if a gun on the table is important to the scene—say a character is going to be shot with it—not showing the reader the gun on the table will make the scene less effective and the prop will feel dropped in. On the other hand, if the gun isn’t necessary to the scene at hand, introducing it will give the reader a false expectation.
Character descriptions fall within this category as well. The reader doesn’t need to know every detail about a character, only those that are important to the scene. In a romance, yes, we want to see what attracts the hero to the heroine so providing that description is a necessity. However, I still take exception to the contest judge who gave my story a very low score simply because she did not know what my character was wearing from scene to scene. True story. In case you’re wondering, I don’t want to know that much detail unless the scene is futuristic ad the outfit is part of the prop.
This leads me to the last suggestion for tightening prose. While strong verbs eliminate unnecessary wording and strengthen the prose, flowery adjective use pounces on a sentence and makes the reader weary. The weathered, old, gray, decrepit Victorian house stood in the dark shadows of night bringing an eerie, frightening appeal to the young ghost hunters.
Better: The weathered Victorian stood in the darkness, bringing an eerie appeal to the young ghost hunters.
When editing for word count, carefully examine your manuscript for weasel words, passive structure, redundancies, excessive description of scene and character, and flowery adjectives. Elimination this excess can result not only in smaller word count but in tighter, more expressive writing.