The Unneeded Words

Recently, I talked about how long novels (generally over 120,000 words) can have problems getting published.

Beyond all of the generally valid reasons publishers may have for saying away from long novels for business reasons, there is the added fact that many long novels could do with a harsh editing before publishing–something the publishers likely don’t want to spend their time doing.

As I said before, if a story demands for a long book, and the 200,000+ length is nearly entirely action-packed or, at least, interesting, there’s no problem with it. If the story drags, however, you have more of a problem. Even if the writing isn’t quite up to purple prose levels, there are very few reasons to be wordy in most forms of creative writing.

And so, if you’re trying to cut down on your word count, keep some of these things in mind:

1. Unnecessary Scenes. Not every scene you write is necessary to your plot. There might be a cute date night or someone running into an old friend that gives you some fun banter, but while reading the story…it does nothing to advance the plot. Unless a scene serves a purpose, it sadly might be better to cut it–especially in a long book.

– Is the scene necessary to the plot?
– Does it show us something about a character that hasn’t been shown before?
– Does it have necessary background information that has to come out now (hopefully not in an info dump [see below])?

If not, seriously consider cutting it. If you can’t bear to see the conversation go, you can always save it elsewhere (I have folders for each project on my laptop with outlines, manuscripts, and a document with all the cut scenes that had to go but I still love–most just because the dialogue amuses me).

This likewise goes for laundry lists of actions. It’s perfectly allowable to have time jumps in novels. The characters get in their car, and then, scene break, they pull up to their destination. You don’t need pages of them talking about nothing in the car, playing the license plate game, explaining how they’re changing their clothes, brushing their teeth somewhere…unless it’s somehow important, you can time jump.

2. Info Dumps. For those not wanting to click over to Wikipedia, an info dump is a long section of text that gives a bunch of back story all at once. Worst thing about info dumps? They’re often unneeded (or at least parts of it are). While we authors do (or at least should) know the entire history of a character (where they grew up, how long they’ve been in a job, who their parents are, why they don’t like so-and-so) it may or may not be important to the plot. An info dump slows down the action (Oh no! It’s the villain! Looks like the Main Character’s (MC) is really going to have to run for it…oh, five pages about how the villain became a villain and how he doesn’t like the MC…what was going on again?) and more than likely, it isn’t necessary.

Pick out the important bits (do we need to know the villain was abused as a child? Does that come up later? Do we need to know he went to Villain University?) and then find a way to weave that information in later. While hopefully your weaving it in doesn’t surface as an “As you know, Bob” even that is preferrable, in my personal opinion, to an info dump. “As you know, Bob”s will likely take up less space (with the unnecessary parts already clipped) and keep the action moving.

3. Too much description. Now, description is good. As I’ve said before, it’s a sad fact, but readers don’t see what’s happening in our heads while we’re writing. Without description it’s either just a bunch of people moving around empty spaces, or worse, floating dialogue. What you don’t need is every last detail in a room (see my comment about skipping those three pages of description about that tree in Return of the King).

Like everything in writing, how much description to use is a fine balance. Tell me the MC is in a classroom. You can say there’s a whiteboard, tables, a podium…whatever you see. You don’t, however, need to spend a page giving every last detail, especially if it’s not important. Is the exact pattern of the carpet going to come up later? Do we need to know how many posters are up and what each is of? If not, consider cutting back a bit–or at least not doing it all at once.

Like an info dump for exposition, description dumps aren’t good. Maybe the pattern of the carpet will be important. Can that come up later? Say a little while later the character looks down at their feet because they’re bored. They can start counting how many stars are across the floor? That way you get the pattern in without, “The room was large with X number of tables. Whiteboard took up one wall, there were 7 posters on the others. In the back… The carpet was… Three windows faced east… yada yada yada.”

4. Wordy phrasing. While not everything has to be in its most succinct form, it’s possible to cut down on your word count and make your writing/imagery stronger a lot of the time by rephrasing things. For example:

The sheets were soaked through, made a squishing sound when Sam moved.”

Not awful, and it’s good to get senses involved in a scene (too often people forget smell and sound for sight when writing). But I would edit it like this:

The sheets were soaked, squished when Sam moved.

Squishing would also work, but since squish is an onomatopoeia, “squished” gives me the same sound as “made a squishing sound” You have the same effect, and give a stronger feeling without all the words couching the sound. Now the sentence has gone from 12 words to 8 words. Chopping out 4 words at a time in a 100,000 word novel can add up quickly.

5. Redundancy. Has it been said before? Cut it. No matter how important a fact is, repeating it over and over isn’t just space consuming, it gets annoying.

All the same, she was happy to be there.”
Two paragraphs later.
Happy to be there, she…”
A paragraph later.
She really was happy to be there.”

We get it, we get it, she’s happy to be there. If a point is very important, maybe say it twice, but more likely than not, the reader will get it after one time. That means you can take out at least 11 words there (“Happy to be there” and “She really was…”) Again, that adds up.

This likewise goes with scenes that are redundant. Did your MC already talk about how he really wishes he could go home? Maybe you need to restate that later, but you don’t need to spend multiple scenes with the character talking about the same thing. Especially not if it is something the character is complaining about. A lot of complaining, whining, or angsting gets old quickly. Namely because a character is continuously complaining about something, but doing nothing to fix it. The plot doesn’t move forward and the character seems one-note.

6. Unneeded Words. And, last but not least, what this blog is titled after–all those little words that sneak in that really don’t need to be there. I believe, so far this year, I have yet to return an edited manuscript that isn’t at least 1,000 words shorter than when I got it (even with adding in needed words/sentences). Even without the other things on this list, there always tends to be unnecessary words.

Now there are plenty of words that can be unnecessary depending on context, but the three I find myself deleting the most are “up”, “very”, and “that”.

Now, if you have someone look up, yes you need up, but often I find “She stood up” or “She raised her hand up” For the first, there isn’t much difference between “She stood” and “She stood up” Up is contributing nothing. For the second, raising implies “up” You don’t “raise your hand down” thus you don’t need to specify.

“Very” is a modifier that “very” often gets abuse. I know I use it all the time (you can probably find plenty of “very”s in this blog). Mostly, though, “very”s get cut before adverbs/adjectives in my editing.

He ran very quickly.”
Her singing was very beautiful.”

Very can bog the sentence down, and they change “very” little. It’s still possible to picture someone running quickly or singing beautiful without modifying it with “very”

As for “that” I have a bit of a vendetta, I admit. Lets look at some examples:

I hope that I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing that she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe that he had been there so long.”

There’s nothing technically wrong with those sentences, but let’s get rid of those “that”s:

I hope I don’t fall.”
It was comforting knowing she wasn’t alone.”
He couldn’t believe he had been there so long.”

Have the sentences lost any of their meaning by taking out “that”? Not really.

So, depending on how often you use unneeded “up”s, “very”s, or “that”s in sentences, you can cut your word count down substantially just by taking out words that don’t serve a purpose.

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7 thoughts on “The Unneeded Words

  1. bwtaylor75 says:

    It’s like looking in a mirror…………….
    That’s why your blog is so helpful, sometimes we don’t even know that we’re doing half of those things. How much description is too much, or not enough. I still haven’t quite mastered that one. I’m also the kind of person who needs to see what I’ve done wrong in order to make a conscious effort to fix those mistakes. Show me what I’ve done wrong, then I’ll better understand how to fix or re-word things.

    • Jessica Dall says:

      That’s the hard part, realizing in your own writing what you’re doing (believe me, I’ve head editors point things out where I go “seriously? I know better…”) We’re all a little too close to our own work.

      And all of those things are very common in writing. Part of the problem is we talk with unnecessary words (so they appear when they don’t need to) and then things like info dumps/too much description are a natural thing to do since the information is *all* important to you as the writer. It’s just something you learn to stop doing as you keep writing.

      I’m glad you find the blog helpful!

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