Reducing Word Count: It’s Not about the Numbers

Reducing word count sometimes feels like the holy grail of revisions. Countless blog posts make long lists of words that you should ruthlessly excise from your manuscript, ranging from “really” and “very” to all adverbs, adjectives, speech tags, and auxiliary verbs in their entirety. Most of the time no one bothers to explain why it’s necessary to delete as many words as possible; it goes without saying in the post-Hemingway world that the best story is the shortest one, and for a harried author trying to cut a 150,000-word manuscript down to publishable length, it’s easy to accept that assumption without thought.

But the key reason you should look for words to delete isn’t to get your book within some ultimately arbitrary word count range. The real reason is that, most of the time, wordier constructions are worse. They dilute the meaning and make the story sound bland. Let’s have a look at some common filler phrases and why they bog down your writing. It’s not just because they use three words instead of two.

“She saw”

You’re probably familiar with this one. Filter words are phrases that frame an activity in terms of someone observing it, such as “she saw the dog run.” The problems here are twofold. First, the main verb of the sentence is the inactive verb “see” rather than the active “run,” so the sentence feels less exciting. Second, the subject of the sentence is the observer, not the actor. If this were a movie, this sentence would be a shot of the woman’s face and her expression as she watches the dog run, rather than a shot of the actual dog running. Lose the filter words and just say “The dog ran,” thus putting the focus on the action and the person (or, in this case, dog) performing it.

When the thing being observed is static, filter words are much more acceptable because they’re probably replacing weak “to be” verbs. If you remove the filter words from “she felt a sudden surge of cold,” you just get “there was a sudden surge of cold,” which isn’t an improvement. There are also situations where the seeing or feeling is the most important fact, such as if a character is discovering that they have psychic powers. Still, the exceptions are relatively rare.

“There is”

Here I’m talking about sentences with a dependent clause, such as “There is no army that can withstand us.” At first glance, the meaning seems fairly to the more concise phrasing “No army can withstand us.” But there are subtle differences. Once again, the active verb is relegated to a clause, weakening the action.

The connotations are different, too. The independent clause just says “There is no army,” implying a simple absence of opposition (“if there were an army, it could withstand us, but it doesn’t matter because there isn’t one”). On the other hand, “No army can withstand us” implies that opposition exists, but it’s powerless (“armies exist, but it doesn’t matter because they can’t withstand us anyway”). The latter phrasing casts the speaker in a much more powerful light.

“Of course”

“Of course,” “obviously,” “naturally,” and the like don’t add any real content to the sentence, so they can be safely removed. But the bigger question is why you’re saying something obvious in the first place. If of course everyone knows this, why bother mentioning it at all? (Note that there’s a difference here between fiction and nonfiction. In persuasive writing, it’s important to make your point as clear as possible, and that often requires stating obvious facts to be sure everyone is on the same page.)

If the line occurs in dialogue, it’s likely that your characters are falling into the “as you know” trap: stating facts that would be obvious to the characters for the benefit of the reader. Always convey information in a way that makes sense in-world rather than making characters talk as though they know there’s an invisible audience present who needs to be filled in.

Counterexamples

On the other hand, cases exist where reducing the word count doesn’t help and can interfere with clarity and meaning. Take the much-maligned auxiliary verb, for example. Common wisdom states that “she did X” and “she was doing X” are identical in meaning and therefore the former construction should always be used because it contains fewer words. But they aren’t identical. English has a rich variety of tenses that convey many shades of meaning, all but two constructed with auxiliary verbs. Cut auxiliary verbs and you lose all but the simplest Dick-and-Jane expressions. Hell, you can’t use the future tense at all.

Consider the difference between the simple present and the present progressive. If your book says “I enter the commander’s office. She’s leaning against her desk,” common wisdom states that you ought to instead say “I enter the commander’s office. She leans against her desk.” But those sentences don’t mean the same thing. The first says that when you entered the office, she was already leaning against the desk and continues to do so. In the second, you enter the office and then she leans against the desk, as if she’s putting on a deliberate affectation. Most likely, you meant the former.

As you can see, wordier constructions aren’t weak simply because they add to your word count. They weaken your writing by deemphasizing the action, placing the focus on the wrong characters, and implying less interesting connotations. Remove these words and phrases in order to strengthen your sentences and create a more active, engaging story, not because they’re on a list of words you’ve been told to delete.

1 Comment


  1. Back during my writeathon days, the word count ruled my life. I remember the frustration of realizing I’d mis-predicted the word count and frantically trying to axe down another couple hundred words. (Because I had already been paid, and I knew if I started a precedent of getting loose with the wordcount, it’d just end in me and others devaluing my work.) Often, it led to the detriment of my writing as I found myself having to excise literally everything that wasn’t the core part of the story–setting descriptions, people’s actions and dialogue, until I often had a more skeletal story just to force it into the word count. (Others, I’d break into pieces of contained scenes so I could at least upload them one at atime.)

    On the one hand, it was an excellent (if painful) way to learn how to predict my word counts more precisely from a rough draft, and just how much story I could cram into minimal space. But now that I’m working on an ebook compendium, I’m putting all those axed scenes back in. Some things, you really do lose by axing.

    But that wasn’t what you meant by word count. ;p

    (Thankfully, my Patreon now makes enough that I can finally stretch my wings into the 2000 word range. Ahhhh, freedom!)

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