How to Cut a Novel

When I went to the PNWA conference, one editor and one agent who requested my work specifically asked me to cut it down to 100,000 words and several presenters supported that in their sessions.

I already knew my novel was too big. I was planning on cutting anyway, so this wasn't a real upset. I told them it was currently 138,000 words and shrinking.

Wait! What delusional part of my brain came up with that number? Try 148,000. Well, now I have to cut almost 50,000 words from the novel. Ouch! How do you cut almost a third of your novel? I don't know how everyone does it, but this is how I have gone about the process.

The absolute first thing I did was make a dated copy of the novel. Never make changes this big without first making a backup copy.

Next, I made the decision to cut two of the five viewpoints based primarily on something author Bob Mayer said in his novel writing session. So the first thing I did is figure out which chapters those two characters had viewpoints in. If there was another viewpoint character in the chapter, I gave the chapter to them, if not, I cut the chapter. Easy reduction, except... Well, I can honestly say that one of those two characters wasn't adding value to the novel. The other, I have discovered, is not so easy to lose. For now, I am leaving him out, but I do feel that he actually adds value to the story, so when I am done, I will be adding him back in to an alternate version (after cleaning up his scenes). I expect that to add about 10,000 words to the cut novel, which, if all goes well, will put that version at around 110,000 words.

My second step was to go through the entire novel and ruthlessly hack out any fluff. What do I consider fluff? Here are some examples: 

  • Unnecessary words - often you can find a lot of the, had, ly words (like simply, mostly, etc.), and such that don't add anything to the value of the sentence. Cut them.
  • Dialog tags – Here is a rather rough example:
        "I love you," John said while caressing her cheek with his fingertips.
        "I love you." John caressed her cheek with his fingertips.
    Keep just the action tags. That is more than enough to clarify who spoke. Also, if you have only two characters in a scene, you can go up to four lines of short conversation without any dialog or action tags as long as it is clear who spoke first.
  • Extraneous explanations/descriptions - If you explain something, then show it through action shortly thereafter, get rid of the explanation. It slows the story down and is extraneous. Also, give your reader some credit. You shouldn't assume your reader destroyed their short-term memory with too much marijuana in high school. If you've described something in one scene, don't describe it again three chapters later unless something has changed or another character is seeing it in a different way.
  • Dead scenes - Scenes that don't move the main plot or one of the subplots forward. Because of the number of words I am trying to cut, I have also been very critical with scenes that don't significantly move a plot or subplot forward.

The first two steps brought me down to about 115,000 words in two weeks and turned my brain into a stressed out ball of mush. No problem. Just squish it back together and keep going. I do believe that a lot of the cutting I have done has improved the novel (with the possible exception of cutting the one viewpoint).

What's next?

A spreadsheet of course! I love spreadsheets. This particular spreadsheet is quite simple. It has four columns: Chapter, Word Count, VPC (Viewpoint Character), and Notes (what happens to make the chapter important).



Word count






Yiloch imprisoned - intro Myac's plans and Emperor Rylan.




Intro to Indigo and first encounter with Yiloch.

This gave me a quick, high-level view of what I might still attack. I am currently targeting chapters that have much higher than average word counts and chapters with scenes I think can still be tightened or perhaps cut completely. As of this morning, I am down to 110,419. So very close, but still so far.

Maybe when I’m done I’ll post a few of my better deleted scenes for fun. J

Happy writing!