Hit Your Word Count, part 1: Crutch Words and Cut Words

Last week, I alluded to the general length novels tend to be in various genres. I noted, and will reiterate here, these word counts are for finished novels, not first drafts, and not necessarily for queries, because the books are going to contract or expand (or both) with revisions.

If you are approaching the point of querying, I recommend checking out the #tenqueries hashtag on Twitter. Agents use #tenqueries to post a brief description of why they request or pass on a manuscript (there are other forms of this hashtag as well, but this is the one my favorite agents use). One of the common issues I see is “too long for genre” (it is much rarer I see a “too short,” but that will be next week’s post).

editingThe easiest way to trim your word count without trimming plot material is to target specific words or phrases that are either unnecessary or used too frequently. Strictly speaking, you should do this whether your manuscript falls into your genre’s sweet spot or not. Consider it “grooming” for your novel; Those words and phrases are the split ends of the writing world. If the word is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence, cut it. If the sentence is not necessary to the narrative, cut it.

Now, if you read the sentence and think, “I like this; It sounds better as-is,” that is perfectly fine. Remember, these are only suggestions and left to the writer’s discretion. As long as you cut unnecessary material more frequently than you keep, you’re going in the right direction.

Note: This process is not something you will be able to do upon finishing your draft, because you’re going to gloss over the fine details. Let me reiterate the importance of putting the draft aside for two weeks to a month before putting your editing glasses on.

Crutch Words

The first thing you want to do is skim your manuscript for crutch words. “Crutch words” are filler words or pet phrases a writer uses too frequently. I am not exaggerating when a cut the word count for COLOSSUS by 1500 by using ctrl+f “just” and “that” and deleting anywhere it was not necessary either to the meaning or meter of the sentence (“meter” being the length of a line – in this context, the flow of reading). L. M. Bryski’s crutch word for Book of Birds was “even.”

Crutch words are not always useless: A few of my beta readers for Sweet NOTHING pointed out my overuse of “scoffed,” “huffed,” and “scowling.” Fixing these is going to take a bit more than the find function and backspace key. And, yes, Thomas Granger really does scowl that much, but if it’s irritating the reader, it needs to be resolved.

Since we as writers are not always cognizant of or don’t always notice things like crutch words, I recommend asking beta readers to keep an eye out for them.

Cut Words

There are several words and phrases we use in everyday dialogue which we include in narrative out of habit: Flavoring particles, words to place emphasis, or elaborations that are not necessary to the understanding of a sentence. When speaking, we don’t need to worry about how many words we use, but when writing, word count is part of the job. These words and phrases also imply there is a stronger way to convey what is going on. I tend to rely heavily on Nat Russo‘s editing checklists (part 1, part 2), but here are some basics:

  • that
    • She knew that he didn’t know what she had seen.
  • just
    • He just knew the direction she had just been heading.
  • even
    • He couldn’t even understand why she would even bother.
  • quite
    • She was quite attractive for a country girl.
  • turned
    • He turned to stared at her.
  • caused/made
    • A branch caused her to trip. She tripped over a branch.
    • A roll of thunder made her jump. Thunder rolled. She jumped. / She jumped at a roll of thunder.
  • suddenly
    • The door opened suddenly. / The door flew open.
  • instantly
    • He rang a bell. A maid instantly appeared.
  • really
    • She really needed to see what they were up to.
  • fought/struggled to
    • I fought to keep from screaming. I clenched my jaw.
    • I struggled to my feet. I stood uneasily. / My legs wobbled as I stood.
  • in order to
    • She needed the recipe in order to make the potion.
  • sentences in passive voice
    • A string of swears were uttered from under the bookshelf. A string of swears rose from under the bookshelf.
  • Perception filters
    • He heard tires crunched on the gravel.
    • She watched people danceding across the floor.

Also keep an eye out for phrases like “nodded my head,” “reached my hand,” “kicked out with my foot.” These are redundant. It’s like saying, “I walked with my legs”; Unless you’re walking on your hands, which you would state some other way, you don’t need to specify body parts. Similarly, watch out for “My heart pounded in my chest” and “Tears fell from her eyes.”

Adverbs and Adjectives

You want to weigh the value of every adverb and adjective. I will not expound on cutting them all mercilessly – just weigh their value. Consider them red flags that the word they are modifying could be strengthened:

  • She closed her eyes tightly. = She squeezed her eyes shut.

Or that you are being redundant:

  • He shouted loudly.

In addition to that, verify the exposition does not already imply the adjective or adverb. A well-structured narrative will lead a reader to imagine the scene a certain way without the help of extra words:

  • Snow covered the ground thickly, glowing palely in the bright moonlight. The moment she opened the door wide, her warm breath came out in clouds and goosebumps rose visibly on her bare skin. The chilly night air bit at her exposed nose as she trekked slowly across the vast parking lot.

Said Tags

Another way to cut your word count dramatically would be to cut the majority of your said tags. These are attached to dialogue to state blatantly who spoke, and often elaborate on how the line was spoken. This includes other words that convey “said”: “stated,” “whispered,” “yelled,” “called,” “cheered,” etc.

I generally cut these and use the framing exposition to indicate who the speaker is:

“Sorry, man. Just… the thought of those kids running away or being held for ransom… it’s just…” Byron said, shaking shook his head. “It would make for a pretty funny movie.”

Remington nodded. and replied, “Well, that funny movie is preferable to the theory we’re pursuing, so I hope that’s the case.”

Byron sighed, remembering what his friends could be going through. “Yeah, man, I’m sorry. It’s just… unreal.,he muttered.

“You don’t wanta imagine your friends in pain, I understand,” Remington sympathized, “and I hope they’re not. But…” Remington looked away, nodding slowly. “The circumstances–the vehicles, the call–they send shivers down my spine; They’re that familiar.”

Here I have two speakers, but never need to indicate who is saying what, because the dialogue is accompanied by actions that imply who is speaking and how they are feeling as they saying it.

Time for an experiment:

Apply the suggestions in this post to a chapter of the draft you’re picking at, and comment with your before and after word counts! Keep in mind, you don’t need to keep these changes – simply see how it impacts your word count.

If you have a different method of cutting down your word count without cutting material, leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!

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