Nonessential words: Tips for Cutting Word Count

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As a writer of short stories, I find my short stories aren’t short enough. Too many times I get excited about finding the perfect journal to publish in only to read their submission guidelines and discover my short story exceeds the magazine’s word count guidelines. Decision time. 1. Move on from not so perfect journal, or 2. Though William Faulkner usually gets credit, it was was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said, “Murder your darlings.” It means CUT! It’s not a big deal to cut a few hundred words, but when you’re over by a thousand words or more it means cutting details, dialogue, and superfluous words. You do need to cut items that do not drive the plot. Here’s a real life dilemma I had with a Civil War speculative novel I am writing. I put these conjoined twin brothers in, gave them two whole chapters, and everyone in my workshop group said while they loved their story it did nothing for the novel. I was rather attached to these men, spent quite a bit of time researching them and imagining their lives, but my workshop was right, so I cut them. They may find their way back into this novel or they may find their way into something entirely different, but for now they went bye-bye.

Also, don’t make the mistake of submitting over the word count guidelines. I’ve lied about word count in the past. I suppose there are worse things in this world to lie about. Remember when you thought you were pulling one over on your eighth grade English teacher by adding nonessential words? Rules are there for a reason. It’s a waste of your time and the editors who upon seeing your blatant word count violation, rolls his or her eyes and tosses your lovely story into Never, Neverland. There are too many reasons to get rejected, don’t give them an easy out.

I’ve listed the various genres next to their word counts below. Please do not hundred percent me on these numbers. I didn’t pull them out of the sky, but I also wouldn’t swear on the Bible or my mother’s life. You may also notice inconsistencies between flash fiction and short story word counts. I’ve seen flash fiction publishers go up to 1,000 words. A big chunk of short story publishers, in my experience, think 2,500 words is magical. Herein, lies the problem (for me). I’ve been experimenting with Nano fiction, Micro fiction, and Flash fiction lately. More is not always better. Don’t believe me. I see a correlation between the tiny house movement and modern writing. I wonder about how popular trends affect readers. Do you see where I am going with this? Social media has given us ADHD. If stories are getting shorter and shorter, could it be that readers do not have the attention span for longish fiction? It could be a time or commitment issue. Either way, publishers of short stories are requesting smaller word counts.

So, you’ve decided to go with option two a/k/a murder. Before you cut a conversation out and/or all your adverbs (do go sparingly on adverbs, though. I made a funny. See? Sparingly and adverb…haha) start cutting superfluous words. I recently cut about 300 words that were taking up white space. Here’s a list of my favorites. Enter them into FIND in Word and kill, kill, kill. It is remarkably satisfying.

Joy-killing Words (plus-ly): all, almost, begin, could, down, from, just, might, may, of, rather, start, some, sudden, that, the, then, up, which, very, and -ly

In addition to cutting your adverbs, be selective with adjectives as well. You can also cut connectives (and, but) and prepositional phrases by looking for prepositions (of, in, from).

If you are writing in passive tense, please stop. No really, stop. My joy-killing word search method will weed out some passive voice issues, but not all. Active Voice: I cut joy-killing words. Passive Voice: Joy-killing words must be cut. While you are only cutting one word, one word turns in two, three, even fifty. Plus, active voice is more immediate.

For those non-writer types who for some reason follow my blog (thanks MOM), if you don’t trust an under 50-word story, here’s a famous six word story accredited to Hemmingway: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” The reader fills in the blanks. If there’s an arc there’s a story. An arc doesn’t ensure a good story, but you can’t have a story without one. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Nano Fiction: 55 or less

Micro Fiction: 300 or less

Flash Fiction: 500 or less and up to 1,000

Short Story: (starting at 1,000) or 2,000-7,500

Novelettes: 7,500-17,000

Novella: 17,000-40,000

Novel: Over 40,000 (or starting at 50,000*)

*See NaNoWriMo where you can sign up to write a novel in a month. It’s how I wrote my first novel, not that the 30-day version was good, but it was definitely a start.

Live the story you want to read!

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