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[Reality Check] Shaping the Novel: How I Trimmed a Manuscript from 150,000 Words to Fewer than 70,000
Written by
Zetta Brown
March 2020
Written by
Zetta Brown
March 2020

Recently, Brooke Warner wrote 3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter Than 80,000 Words.

The main reason being that doing this can make your manuscript more appealing to publishers and reading audiences with limited time but not necessarily limited attention spans.

An interesting conversation followed about the pros and cons of this approach. Radical steps that lead to radical results is often met with skepticism and disbelief, but when readers are often asked--expected--to suspend their disbelief in order to see what happens, authors should do the same.

Libby Ware can attest to this to this method--with positive results. She also provides valuable tips on how you can do it too without feeling as if you've sacrificed your writing (or your soul) to the Devil.


Shaping the Novel: How I Trimmed a Manuscript from 150,000 Words to Fewer Than 70,000
By Libby Ware

When I was working on my novel, I was taking a writing class with a published author who advised us to keep our novels under 400 pages. She also said that a page on the computer was equivalent to a printed page. So when my manuscript topped out at 596 pages, I knew I had some cutting to do—major cuts, minor cuts, and tightening.

I had three point-of-view characters: Lum, Smiley, and Amy. The first thing I did was count how many chapters were in each person’s voice. Since Amy had several chapters, but not as many as Lum and Smiley, whom I considered the main characters, I cut many of Amy’s chapters that did not directly move the action along. That was substantial cutting. Some authors (such as Annie Dillard did in her book, The Maytrees) cut entire subplots. You can use deleted chapters for another book. (More on this later.) Minor cuts would be taking out parts of chapters, such as two or three paragraphs.

After taking out whole chapters, I still needed to get to the goal of 400 pages. The following techniques were helpful to me. They will not only shorten your book, but will result in smoother prose:

  • Look for prepositional phrases that aren’t necessary. For example: She ran up the stairs hoping the killer wasn’t in one of the many rooms in the ranch house. Change to: … hoping the killer wasn’t in one of the many rooms. (We already know she is in a ranch house.)
  • Look for words such as of, that, would, could, just. Southerners like to use extra prepositions, such as: Take the pot off of the stove. “Of” is extraneous. Or, he ran out through the door. Either: He ran out the door, or he ran through the door. By searching for “that” I found I used the word a lot more than was necessary.
  • Cut out intensifiers (most, much, very, so). And above all, never write: he was the most handsome man she’s ever seen.
  • Almost all adverbs are unnecessary. You can define adverbs by surrounding words. For example, instead of: “Go home!” she said angrily, say: “Go home!” she snapped. Or, use more active verbs. Instead of: Natasha ran quickly through the woods, write: Natasha sprinted through the woods.
  • If the last page of a chapter has only a few lines on it, try to trim some unnecessary sentences to delete that extra page. This trick teaches you to tighten your prose.
  • Read through a chapter looking for repetition. Often writers say something, then say it again a couple of pages later. When you read through your entire manuscript you may find pet phrases you use over and over. My characters often searched another character’s eyes, or grabbed someone by the wrist.
  • In each chapter, ask yourself if it adds to the plot. This is another way to delete a whole chapter.

After I had made all these changes, the manuscript was still over 110,000 words. I had heard that a historical novel could be longer than 100,000 words. So I started querying agents. At a writers conference, I met an agent who was excited about my book and asked for the entire ms. After reading it, she said there was not enough connection between my two main point-of-view characters, Smiley and Lum. She advised that I either add more connection, or consider splitting the book in two. After thinking about this, I decided to divide the book, starting with Lum. I pulled all her chapters out and put them together into a new document. Lo and behold, it was too short! So I had to get busy and write more chapters. I added flashbacks and ended up with a short novel of a little over 200 pages. But Lum got her own book. And Smiley and Amy, your time is coming.


Libby Ware owns Toadlily Books, an antiquarian book business, and is also a book collector. She is President of Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association and belongs to the Atlanta Writers Club and the Georgia Writers Association and has been a member of a writing group that has been meeting for over 20 years. She lives in Atlanta with her two dogs, Tilly and Robin, and a mile away from her partner, Charlene Ball.

Her novel, Lum, will be published by She Writes Press in October, 2015. Lum is about an intersexed woman living in Depression-era Virginia mountains. She has no home of her own but is shuttled from one relative's house to another―valued for her skills, but never treated like a true member of the family. Everything is turned upside down, however, when the Blue Ridge Parkway is slated to come through her family’s farmland.

Website: www.libbywarewriter.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/LibbyWareAuthor


©2015. Zetta Brown. All Rights Reserved. Zetta is an editor and the author of several published short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. She provides services through JimandZetta.com.

Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

If you like this post, then stop by and follow Zetta’s Desk for editing tips.


* This post was originally published in August 2015.

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  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Libby, great piece on cutting and tightening. I'm getting close to that next step and will follow your suggestions. Thanks for spelling them out. And congratulations again on Lum. I've got to order my copy from Charis.

  • Zetta Brown

    Thanks for sharing these valuable tips, Libby. I often find authors reluctant to cut the chaff from their writing even if it will help their writing. Some see it as ruining their voice or making their writing sterile, when in truth, it can help their "voice" come out.

    However, I would suggest that authors don't equate one computer screen page as the equivalent of a printed page. Why? Because book sizes, margins, and font size will dictate the thickness of the book. Also, in this day and age, many people read books on electronic devices where there are no "pages"--and screen sizes vary.

    But I strongly recommend that authors pay attention to the length of their chapters, because whether it is in print or digital form, you don't want to exhaust your reader with novella-length chapters.