How to Cut 40,000 Words

Post Date: February 4th, 2011

I find myself staring at Teasdale’s Zeffirelli poster where an animal Romeo clutches a buxom Juliet; she’s looking serene as Mary, mother of God, while he looks like he might squeeze her to death or kill the next thing that moves. Tell me why I can relate to him more than her.
– Wendy, in my novel St. Michael, Pray for Us: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought

(This image courtesy of the film Supersize Me.)

The above quotation is what one might call a “killed darling.” Specifically, it’s a nugget I added with Draft #4 or #5 to better describe setting and better characterize Wendy in all her rage and confusion.

In the course of writing a novel, some authors generate a lot of words. It’s how we purple prosers find the story. Sometimes, with as many as 100,000 too many.

Right now, I’m in the process of applying some very good advice: cut a 125, 000-word novel down to 85,000 words. This is because the YA market prefers slimmer models, not the supersize version I’ve created.

It’s on. Let’s do this. These last two weeks, I’ve cut 22,000. 75 pages left to cut to get to my goal.

When I began, I tried to sweeten a challenge quite daunting. Only 80 words per page–that’s not so bad, right?

I also respond well to this self-coaching: Cut the detour scenes, those descriptive moments with lots of characters but no one seeking any particular goal, or scenes that repeat prior moments with different dialogue. Revising with this pair of eyes has probably yielded the most fruit, or rather, pruned back the riotous growth.

Or I can put on my Soapbox Lens. That’s for commentary sounding more like Lyn on a soapbox than Wendy holding forth. We all identify with our characters and sometimes speak for them in strident, overbearing tones.

The two toughest revision methods are a) finding the essence of each scene and cutting all the rest or b) grappling with that global question, the story’s structure. Somehow I have to see all the novel’s pages at a glance and lift from them the narrative thread–the through line of Wendy’s heroic journey. I wish I could say I already have a perfect outline sitting on the shelf, waiting to aid me in this very process, but alas, the story did not create itself that way.

My friend and author Bob Mustin gave me this encouragement as I embarked last week on my own hero’s journey, facing the beasts of revision:

“Remember the upside down checkmark? Rising action that reaches the climax, then a short bit of falling action and the denouement?”

Of course I do; I’ve taught that for years, should know it by heart, right? But why all of a sudden in the context of my own challenge did these bits and bytes of plot data suddenly take on a whole new meaning?

I’ve berated, cajoled, encouraged my students year after year to revise, but the advice only hits home when an author is ready to revise. Why did Bob’s reminder about story structure strike a chord? Because this boot camp is about the agents and market waiting on the other side, and I suddenly hear them loud and clear.

In even those negligible 58 words I cut, I really liked how Wendy expresses her sassiness, irreverence, sexual frustration, and anger. But I cut it because it slows the narrative momentum and repeats what’s been said before. It doesn’t matter if I find the image striking or clever; it’s gotta go.

My last tactic to outwit my wordy self? An Out-Takes folder. There I throw every slain darling, every rejected scene. There will be a day when readers want to see what hit the cutting-room floor, because by God, I’m making Wendy so real, her story will go on, and on, and on–just not within the covers of my novel.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— When you teach, which subjects or activities send you into Long-Winded Land? Why? Are your lectures effective, or, do they wax poetic yet purple?
— If you write fiction or nonfiction, pull out a piece you haven’t looked at in at least a month. Read with an editor’s eye, seeking fat. Identify a line or two that could go. Then write about what type of line you wished to cut. Give it a category or name–a purple-prosey tendency you have–and meditate on how you can keep an eye out for it next time.
— What’s the largest amount of words you’ve ever cut from your writing? How did you do it? Why did you do it?
— How do you encourage students to revise their work? How do you encourage “less is more”?
— The 20th century fiction admired the Hemingway and Carver-esque modes of minimalist prose, and 21st century fiction, while too new to be categorized, is being created in a Tweet-saturated world. Do you think writing is getting more expressive or less expressive in its 140 character bursts? (Though apparently technology has yet another workaround if a Tweet size doesn’t satisfy you and you feel the need to super-size: meet Twitzer.
— Find the preferred word limit for the fiction genre you write and list strategies you can use to keep your story in line.
— Are your favorite writers lengthy or concise in style, or both? Argue the merits of either style and why you admire a certain author’s approach to storytelling.
— Attempt a short story of 500 words (or Three-Minute Fiction), of 750, of 1,000, of 2500, and 4,000; in other words, write five versions of this story. Which is the best?

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Make an argument to your parent or guardian, your teacher, or some other adult in your life for something you want or need. Write a 25-word persuasive argument, a 50-word, a 100-word, and a 250-word argument. Which is most effective? Why?
— Do you write long or short? If you write long, why do you think you do? What do people tell you to cut? If you write short, why do you think you do? What do people tell you to add?
— Find a piece of writing you haven’t looked at in at least a month. Identify a line or two that could go. How did you know this line should go? Do you see any trends in your writing that make sentences worth cutting out?
— What’s the largest amount of words you’ve ever cut from your writing? How did you do it? Why did you do it?
— When you Tweet, text, IM, or update your Facebook status, are you a long writer or a short writer? Which types, the long or the short, get the most feedback from others?
— Whose writing do you most admire? Would you characterize this writer as lengthy with description and plot or more concise? Why does this type of writing appeal to you?
— Attempt a short story of 500 words (or Three-Minute Fiction), of 750, of 1,000, of 2500, and 4,000; in other words, write five versions of this story. Which is the best?


  1. DF says:

    Are you saying you have an agent who will represent you if you cut 40,000 words? Brava!

  2. I think when I wrote that I was reminding myself that I have to hear the call to taut prose, too. 😉

  3. Hey, David,

    Thanks! There is interest from an agent who liked the ms if I cut it to fit market specs.

    @Bob: yes, all of us much preach it to ourselves!

  4. Anonymous says:

    For hero’s journey and screenwriting, suggest