The first advice we receive from experts on this topic is to get rid of any scene that doesn’t help move the plot along, no matter how enamored we are with it. That is sound (and painful) advice, but I normally find I have few, if any, such scenes. Even the ones I thought I could cut, as I looked over my scene-by-scene sketch (see tip 3), turned out to include comments that would later prove important. In the end, I only remember deleting three scenes between two different stories as I shortened one manuscript from 152K words to 104K and another from 117K to 99K.
Here are the methods that helped me shorten my stories and refine the writing along the way:
1. Drop little words and phrases like these: Even, rather, really, fairly, in fact, actually, just, for sure. Often, these are not necessary and may actually detract from the writing. On occasion, they’re great to have. I did use “actually” two sentences ago. Other times I believe they’re great, and I’m determined to keep a “rather” that adds the right feeling to my sentence—but by my third reading of the story, I realize my sentence is better without it.
There’s often a little more oomph to a phrase when you let it stand on its own, without using an “even” or a “really” to tell the reader this is a big deal.
As for “um” and trailing ellipses “. . . ,” I agree we want our characters to sound real. We in our modern world are not great at flowing speech. We do use “um,” and we do let our sentences hang. Even so, I’ve found I can get rid of at least half of these instances in my writing, make it sound better overall, and still have the characters sound realistic.
Dropping individual words, phrases, and ellipses may only shorten your novel by a couple of hundred words, but it makes your writing better.
2. Read your story out loud. This is a great way to catch sentences that sound awkward, but before you look for a way to rewrite them, ask yourself: Can I get rid of this sentence? Is there enough introspection in this scene that I can simply drop a clumsy sentence or paragraph that describes more of the character’s thought process? Is there enough description that I may as well get rid of this part I’m struggling with? Is there enough humor in the dialogue that I can drop this portion?
3. Pick out unusually long scenes. I love to write a sketch of the entire manuscript with page and chapter numbers and a brief mention of everything that happens. As I go through the book to write this down, I may find a scene that takes up an entire eight pages, while the others take between one and four. It may be a central part of the story. Even so, I’ll take a hard look at it and see if I can cut anything. If it isn’t one of the more important scenes, I should definitely try to cut out pieces. When there are hilarious parts I badly want to keep and believe are of value to the reader, I may move them to somewhere else in the story. Here again my sketch is helpful as I have an overview of surrounding chapters and other scenes with similar settings where this piece might fit.
What methods have been helpful to you? Feel free to share, and good luck on your word-count journey.