Episode 7: Four Ways to Reduce a Giant Word Count


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Season 3, Episode 7: Four Ways to Reduce a Giant Word Count

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 3, Episode 7: What to do with a giant word count.

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Bronwyn, who says: I’m what’s known as a ‘waffler’. I’m currently writing a book that has 7 POVs and the word count is insane. How can I be more concise in my writing? 

Ah, Bronwyn. I feel you. My books are famously huge – except for my middle grade books for younger readers, they’re all well over 100,000 words, and if I wasn’t strict with my wordcounts, they’d be far, far larger.

Now, a long word count isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In some genres it’s quite normal to go over 100,000 words, and in a few, like epic fantasy, to go a long way over it. But you want it to be a very deliberate move, and not something that happened because the whole story sprawled out and completely got away from you.

Long books are challenging on many fronts. There are practical issues, like shelf space – if a bookshop can only fit three copies of your book where they’d fit five of another on the shelf, they might just order the three. They also cost more to produce, you can ship fewer of them per box, so they cost more to transport, and you can probably tell by now that I’ve produced some pretty hefty books in my time, and learned a lot of things I didn’t know at the start.

Long books are also tricky for readers, though – not everybody rips through a story in just a few days, and for the person who does a couple of chapters each day on their commute, remember what happened all those words ago is difficult. You might find you lose readers, either halfway through, or because they don’t pick the book up at all.

And then, if you’re an aspiring writer, or one seeking a new deal, there are also the editors to consider. Now, editors will absolutely acquire a long book, but I checked in with a few when putting together this episode, and the consensus was that if they see a word count that goes too high, they do ask questions – has this author plotted as tightly as they could have? Did their description get out of hand? Has this book been polished and tightened as much as possible?

If you are an aspiring writer, I imagine you’re hoping I’m going to tell you what qualifies as “too long” – and unfortunately, I really can’t. It depends so much on the age group you’re writing for, the genre you’re writing in, and more. Others are more qualified than me to give you solid answers, and I don’t want to offer estimates that will end up transformed into rules.

What I can tell you is that whether you’re absolutely sure your book is far too long, or whether you just want to run it through a series of tests to be sure it’s as tightly written as can be, there are a number of approaches you can take. I’m going to talk about four of them today.

Tip one: Make everything in the book justify its existence. Look at each character, and ask what happens if you just . . . chop them out entirely. And don’t skim over it and say ‘no, that’s impossible!’ It might take some work – you might have to reassign something they do or a purpose they serve to someone else. When I was in my early edits for my 2023 book, The Isles of the Gods, my first two readers both suggested that two characters – the prince and his bodyguard – were quite similar. They asked what would happen if I combined them, and assigned a few of the bodyguard’s duties to another character, who certainly wasn’t expecting to protect anyone, but was capable of it.

I was really surprised by that feedback, because in my head, these two boys felt so different! But my first two readers were Marie Lu and C.S. Pacat, so with that kind of expertise on my hands, you know I was listening. I kept an open mind, and looked for ways to make it happen.

It turned to be absolutely possible to cut an entire character. In fact, making someone who wasn’t either keen or qualified into the prince’s de facto bodyguard improved the story, and taking out a whole character meant the prince had much more time to spend on screen.

The same test can apply to subplots, or if you have multiple narrators, to whether someone gets to narrate events, or is simply a character others talk about. Can you find characters, events, settings or moments that you can cut, dramatically reduce, or combine with something else?

Tip two is to look at the plot itself. If you think it might be meandering, pull out some standard outlining tools – grab a diagram of the Hero’s Journey, or turn to something like Save The Cat Writes A Novel, and match the beats of your novel to the beats in the outlining tool. Whatever outline you use, they usually come with indications of where the beats should fall – say, at the ten percent mark of your word count. Look at your midpoint twist, and check whether it’s actually in the middle.

The purpose of this is to see whether there’s one part of your novel that’s ballooned, and taken up too much space. Do you wander around for too long at the start, before the action gets underway? Is there a big gap after your inciting incident takes place, but nobody really response?

Nothing you find in these outlines is written in stone, but they’re a helpful guide – you should be consciously breaking these rules, rather than accidentally.

Tip three is to work your way through your book and make cuts throughout. It’s hard, painstaking work, but it pays dividends. My producer Kate writes as Kate Armstrong, and in 2023 will release her debut novel, Nightbirds. When I was critiquing Kate’s work early on in her writing process, we talked about her word count – about the fact that it might be high enough to give some editors second thoughts. Her plot was great, though, so Kate had to do the long, hard job of combing through the book, and looking for little scenes that could be combined, descriptions could be cut.

Her descriptions were luscious, but I suggested that sometimes you want to let one sparkling diamond really stand out, rather than crowd it with too many emeralds and rubies and sapphires, so the eye doesn’t know where to look. She dove in, she did the work, and she refined and refined, until she had a book that knocked editors’ socks off. We’ll be talking about that editorial process a lot more in an upcoming episode of our new podcast, Pub Dates.

My fourth and final tip is one that won’t apply to many people, but will – if you’re one of them – deliver a big a-ha moment. If your book is truly huge, it might be worth asking yourself whether you’ve actually written more than one book. Is there a break point where you could split the whole thing in two? Is this a duology, but you forgot to pause between them? If this is you, you’ll know pretty quickly.

So there you have it – four ways to chop your word count down.

One: Make everything justify its existence, and look for characters, plot points, subplots, settings and more that you can either chop out, or combine with something else.

Two: Compare your plot to an outlining tool, to see if one particular area has ballooned.

Three: Take it one word at a time, and refine your prose throughout the book.

Four: Break the whole thing in two, and celebrate the fact that you wrote two books.

Here’s an exercise: Flip open a book you’ve read recently, and look at the first chapter. If you had to cut ten percent of it, what would go? I’m not suggesting that you’ll necessarily create a better chapter – but it’s helpful to remember that absolutely everything can get shorter, if that’s what you choose to do with it.

That’s all for this week. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about co-authoring – which is something I’m asked about so often that I’m devoting the last three episodes of the season to it.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new listeners find the podcast, and I really appreciate it. I’ll also remind you to check out Pub Dates, where Kate and I will take you behind the scenes on the countdown to launching our next books.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, author of the upcoming novel Nightbirds. You can find her online at katejarmstrong.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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