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.
Happy editing.

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