Ridiculously Simple Tricks For Reducing Word Count

scissorsChoose your weapon wisely!

Once you’ve got a fiction or nonfiction piece ready for prime-time, there may still be a word count limit you have to worry about. It may be a restriction imposed on you by the publisher, or you may want to get your piece as short and concise as possible- not just for simplicity’s sake, but also to reduce its overall file size. A smaller file size means a larger per-sale commission when you sell your work through sites like Amazon.

Reducing words while leaving meaning intact can be a real art form. Here are some tricks that aren’t so much “art” as “stupidly easy wins.” With any luck, they’ll trim your word count and make your prose stronger- and you won’t even break a sweat!

X of the Y -> the Y’s X or Y X

Holy crap, did I just go all math on you? No, I’m just referring to the very common of the structure for indicating possession. Common, but also wordier than necessary. Instead of “The branch of the tree,” for instance, you can say “The tree branch.” Instead of “The edge of the lake,” you can say “The lake’s edge.”

It’s really easy to perform a find operation in your word processor, look for occurrences of of the in the document, and see how many of these conversions make sense to do. Each time, you’re cutting out two words!

Was Xing, Started/Began/Try to X -> Xed

A lot of times, the construction of [subject] + [to be] + [verb]ing does nothing to add meaning to the sentence, and just pads it out unnecessarily. For instance, “I was poring through photo albums on Sunday” can easily become “I pored through photo albums on Sunday.”

Similarly, you don’t always have to announce when someone begins to perform an action. When they begin, they begin; it’s understood. And trying to do something is similarly redundant. Follow Yoda’s advice here: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Limit how often you use begin to, start to, try to, and similar constructions. When you eliminate these wishy-washy phrasings, your prose gets stronger and shorter.

Oh- but if you do use “try?” It’s always try to. There is no try “and.”

Not X -> UnX

If you can sub in un- instead of not, that gets rid of a word. “Not happy” to “unhappy,” for instance.

Adverb cutting

I discussed this recently, but simply axing unnecessary adverbs does a lot to lower word count and strengthen sentences. You’ll reap big wins for eliminating adverbs like really, quite, almost, somewhat, mostly, truly, very, etc.

Sometimes, a simple delete will do. Other times, you may want to look for a stronger verb or adjective to get the job done. For instance, you may change “very cold” to “frigid.”

Verb substitution

Be on the lookout for phrases that can be eliminated simply by using an equivalent, but shorter verb. For instance, “I turned to him” can become “I faced him.” Or “We got up to the counter” can become “We reached the counter.”

Unnecessary lead-in expressions

I don’t have a good name for these, but any time you start a sentence like “It’s a fact that…” or “I strongly believe that…” just cut that phrase out entirely. These words add nothing to the point you’re trying to make.

Extraneous “that”

There are a few cases where you can remove the word that and reduce your word count. If you can take that out and the sentence still makes sense, then do so. An example would be “He realized that he needed to do it.” This can easily become “He realized he needed to do it.”

Another example is “that” followed by a verb of some form. “The hands that restrained him,” for instance. You can take out that and tweak the verb to get “The hands restraining him,” which is shorter. Shorter still would be “The restraining hands,” but this construction may or may not make sense in context.

 

That’s it for now! When reducing word count, do be careful to preserve the meaning of your sentences. It’s easy to get so caught up in the number game that your prose suffers for it. When in doubt, err toward being CLEAR rather than CLEVER.

If you have any other dead-simple word count tricks, rattle ’em off in the comments below!


Killing (And Sparing) The Adverb

knifeAny tool can be used goodly or badly!

Why are adverbs “bad?”

Well, to be fair, they’re not. They’re quite simple and clear in their meaning, and are very common in ordinary speech.

However, some are severely overused in prose, making it plodding and tiresome to read. Some are extremely extraneous. And some tell what you can easily be showing instead.

One good way to step up your writing is to strike and swap out adverbs- when it makes sense to do so. Here are some thoughts toward addressing adverbs in your prose:

1) Don’t worry about dialogue. People talk how people talk. You needn’t take an axe to the words that come out of a character’s mouth, unless their dialogue must conform to a specific pattern (for instance, Commander Data in Star Trek never used contractions, lending a stilted tone to his speech).

2) Consider the person/voice of your narration. A first-person narration, wherein a character is telling you his story, should read more like the character is speaking. In that case, narration can follow the same rules as spoken dialogue, and can be whatever it needs to be- so long as it’s in-character. Your raging illiterate barbarian probably won’t ever be pondering the verisimilitude of his targets, for instance.

However, a narrative voice that’s not attached to any particular character will have no particular personality associated with it, and can benefit from some adverb-trimming.

3) Some adverbs can almost always be removed without a problem. Very, mostly, quite, really, fairly, somewhat, basically, fundamentally– these don’t add much. Removing them often makes the sentence stronger.

4) Consider revising or removing “cliche” adverbs. Strikingly beautiful, frequently used… some adverb/adjective or adverb/verb pairs are glued at the hip, they’re so frequently used together. Using them is a bit of inadvertent laziness on our part. It’s what our brains fall back on. And that’s fine for a first draft… but couldn’t you later come up with some original, more revealing way of saying the same thing?

Example 1: “I don’t come here often,” he said nervously.

Alternative 1: “I don’t come here often.” The hand holding his shot glass quivered.

Alternative 2: He stuttered something out, too quiet for me to hear. “What’s that?” I prompted.

He gave a start. “I- I just don’t come here often is all.”

Again, this falls into “show don’t tell” territory. Use these opportunities to reveal how characters behave or interpret the world around them.

Suddenly is also a good cliche to hunt down and destroy where possible. It does nothing to add to the prose, and is just a lazy way of signaling, “Hey, something’s about to happen.” You can do better!

5) Consider reserving adverbs for “unexpected” uses. An original adverb pairing can be attention-grabbing, but it should still be used sparingly. Too many of these can be distracting.

 

Have any other ideas about adverbs? Share your thoughts in the comments!


“I Did So Love Being A Star”

catseye_nebula

I’ve read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time at least a dozen times since I was eight years old. One passage in particular has always stuck with me:

Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness, the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it too was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing.

“You see!” the Medium cried, smiling happily. “It can be overcome! It is being overcome all the time!”

Mrs. Whatsit sighed, a sigh so sad that Meg wanted to put her arms around her and comfort her.

“Tell us exactly what happened, then, please,” Charles Wallace said in a small voice.

“It was a star,” Mrs. Whatsit said sadly. “A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing. It won, oh, yes, my children, it won. But it lost its life in the winning.”

Mrs. Which spoke again. Her voice sounded tired, and they knew that speaking was a tremendous effort for her. “Itt wass nnott sso llongg aggo fforr yyou, wwass itt?” she asked gently.

Mrs. Whatsit shook her head.

Charles Wallace went up to Mrs. Whatsit. “I see. Now I understand. You were a star, once, weren’t you?”

Mrs. Whatsit covered her face with her hands as though she were embarrassed, and nodded.

“And you did– you did what that star just did?”

With her face still covered, Mrs. Whatsit nodded again.

Charles Wallace looked at her, very solemnly. “I should like to kiss you.”

Mrs. Whatsit took her hands down from her face and pulled Charles Wallace to her in a quick embrace. He put his arms about her neck, pressed his cheek against hers, and then kissed her.

….

“I didn’t mean to tell you,” Mrs. Whatsit faltered. “I didn’t mean ever to let you know. But, oh, my dears, I did so love being a star!”

As a kid who was getting more and more interested in astronomy, I was captivated by the idea of being a star. Well, it just so happens I am a star- several of them. So are you. This is probably my favorite thing that I have ever learned.

Our universe is made up of one simple element: hydrogen (one proton, one electron). The insides of huge stars are the only places in the universe where hydrogen atoms can be fused together into bigger elements like oxygen and iron. When those massive stars run out of fuel to burn, they explode into supernovae, scattering their own ashes for thousands of light years in all directions.

The ashes contain most of the elements in the periodic table. Those elements eventually clump together with elements ejected by other supernovae to form new stars, planets, and other neat things- like you and me. Carl Sagan put it this way:

“All the elements of the Earth, except hydrogen and some helium, have been cooked by a kind of stellar alchemy billions of years ago in stars, some of which are today inconspicuous white dwarfs on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our  teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star-stuff.”

Many Mrs. Whatsits sacrificed themselves against the darkness, and the end result is us. You and I might even share atoms that came from the same ancient star, millions of light-years distant in space and time.

Blood ancestry connects us to other humans. Star ancestry connects us to the universe: animals, flora, mountains, oceans, planets, asteroids, even our star-cousins forming in distant nebulae right now.


The Subtle Art Of Tells

chatter_teethWe hear it all the time: show, don’t tell. And most of the time, that’s solid advice. But there are occasions where a tell is necessary, or just a better idea: for the sake of brevity, backstory, worldbuilding, your series theme song, that sort of thing.

The way to do tells is to weave them in as seamlessly and naturally as possible. They should be ninja, dropping information into your readers’ minds without anyone being the wiser.

Why? Because an obvious tell can feel forced, pedantic, and fake. A really bad one hits the brakes on the whole story, throwing the reader clear.

So, what are some ways of doing tells well?

  • Keep them brief and rare. Paragraphs and chapters full of tell are really bad. If you have a lot of worldbuilding to do, spread it out in dribs and drabs. Let those details pop up when it makes sense for them to do so.
  • Don’t hit the brakes on your narration in order to tell. Sometimes this is done as part of an intro– or a character may go to a library, and we’re privy to every single word he reads while there. This usually sucks, because it leaves the story hanging. Breaks like these are why I’ll never read Solaris again, even though I really liked the premise.
  • Do your best to integrate the tell into the story. An example: in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker and others rebel pilots are briefed on the plan to blow up the Death Star. There’s a lot of “tell” there about the Death Star design that would’ve been way too hard to show with the visual effects of the time. This tell also advances the story, rather than calling timeout on it.
  • Be careful with tell done through dialogue. A good rule of thumb is to avoid dialogue that begins with “You know.” “You know, Bob, your sister’s an accomplished scientist in her own right.” If the other character already knows, then there’s no reason for the speaker to say it, except to provide backstory to the reader. It feels phony. Never have characters explain things to each other that they should already know!
  • Leave a little mystery if so inclined. The tell doesn’t have to be all-inclusive. If your tell raises more questions than it answers, then readers will want to keep reading for those answers. Just be sure to provide answers eventually, in a satisfying manner!

What are your favorite tricks for tells? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!