I’ll be brief. Most books contain too many words. For all that people bemoan the “ snippetization ” of prose and praise the “longread,” length isn’t a virtue in itself. As a chronically unterse writer who spent a year ripping two hundred pages from my novel , I’ve learned more than one way to skin a draft: merge scenes, murder characters, “start as close to the end as possible” (Kurt Vonnegut), quit writing altogether.
But the most useful and underrated technique is what’s sometimes called the “scalpel edit”: clipping and nipping your manuscript line by line. Once I started focusing solely on lowering the word count, everything looked baggy. My first draft contained the line: “Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work,” which ended up as: “Still, it beat real work.”
So here’s some tricks to keep things short. Start by eliminating pad words that are meant to yield greater precision or emphasis, but achieve the opposite. Consider downtoners like “nearly” and “almost”: He was almost insane with irritation. “Insane” is obviously exaggerated, so “almost” only weakens it. Intensifiers like “very” and “extremely” signal that a stronger adjective or verb is required instead, so that He was extremely confused becomes He was dumbfounded . Ditto for “all at once” , “in a flash,” “without warning,” “abruptly,” “instantly,” “suddenly,” or “all of the sudden” —ironically, these drain away suddenness by giving the reader a heads-up.
Some constructions add nothing but vagueness: She had a quiet kind of dignity or He made a sort of half-smile . Not only do these inflate simple declarations—she was dignified, he half-smiled—they’re also underconfident. Similarly, starting a sentence with “there are/is/were” is seldom necessary. My fix for both is to turn the object into the subject, leaving room for more detail: His half-smile revealed his inflamed gums.
Formality is another bloater. When writers worry about sounding plain, unceremonious, or dumb, they reach for polysyllables and unnecessary phrases. George Orwell reviles the use of “render inoperative” to replace “break,” while David Foster Wallace cringes at people writing “utilize” instead of “use” or “at this time” instead of “now.” Likewise, in literature, people abuse rhetorical devices, my least favorite of which is anaphora—when successive phrases begin with the same words. Many such passages, borrowing the rhythms of venerated writing (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; “Love is patient, love is kind”), are praised as “strong” or “lyrical” instead of what they usually end up being: lazy and hollow, lending a ponderous refrain to a flimsy sentiment.
But informal and personal narration can be clunky too. In first-person prose, phrases that mark a statement’s subjectivity—“I feel like,” “I find that,” “I tend to think,” “in my opinion,”—mostly go without saying; they’re implied, for example, in this piece. “Seem to” and “appear to” are also common eyesores—I once read a manuscript with the line “He was standing near what appeared to be a sink.” Most speechy tics should be skipped: The best thing about him is that he’s funny or It was exactly this sort of thing that bothered him. And dialect in fiction can be great, but it’s still no excuse to meander: Well, it was about, oh, say, the first warm doggone day of March some ten years back, when a body could see Ol’ Man Higgins a-settin’ and a-whittlin’ out on his porch . . .
Most writers develop pet strategies for tidying up. You’ll probably recall Strunk and White’s famous dictum to “omit needless words,” and their prescriptions to avoid the passive voice, use parallel constructions, and so on. Mark Twain killed adjectives, Stephen King adverbs. But orthodoxy can lead you back into wordiness. Sure, adverbs can be vague, ham-fisted, and/or redundant— “I need you,” he said desperately— but sometimes they’re efficient. Here’s one from Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews”:
“The Catholics,” Itzie said helpfully, “they believe in Jesus Christ, that he’s God.” Itzie Lieberman used “the Catholics” in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants.
Here, “helpfully” is ironic, and serves to distinguish the narrator’s perspective from the characters’ with just one word. And it’s certainly better to say He closed the door carefully than He closed the door with a great deal of care —though you might also argue that He eased the door shut is better than both.
I know all this sounds like tweedy editorial nitpicking, and some filler can’t ruin an otherwise great book—who could turn down one of Dickens’s puff pastries? My finished novel is pockmarked with almost s. Still, beyond concentrating your prose, extreme concision can yield an individual style, not just for minimalists like Carver, but even for the prolix David Foster Wallace, with his devised signature shorthands (“w/r/t,” “IYI”). Once I attained nirvana, I found myself replacing near with by , and then with either and or then , and the past progressive ( I was going ) with the past participle ( I went ).
Last thing: Don’t worry too much about deleting until late in the process. An overlong first draft is normal and fine, but in revision, concision is a stylistic imperative second only to eliminating cliché. If you can reduce the manuscript’s word count while preserving the meaning, it’ll be objectively improved — a rare guarantee. The more you begrudge every word, syllable, and letter, the less readers will hate you.
Tony Tulathimutte’s fiction-writing workshop begins on September 12. Apply now.