Novel Too Long? How to Avoid Overwriting in Fiction and Reduce Your Wordcount
There are two types of writer: underwriters and overwriters.
Personally, I’m a serious underwriter. My first drafts typically run to 50 to 60,000 words and contain the bare bones of a story, with very little character and scene description – I tend to fill all that in during later drafts.
But from the manuscripts I’ve edited, I’ve noticed that overwriting is far more common among aspiring writers than its opposite.
What’s the problem?
You want your readers to be hooked. When a book becomes bogged down with too much detail or is overly wordy, then you risk readers becoming bored and disengaged. You might have a great story, but that won’t matter if it’s hidden behind a thicket of unnecessary and laboured descriptions and detail.
Signs you might be an overwriter
If you’re getting feedback like “The story was great, but there was too much dialogue,” or “too much description”, then there’s a good chance your novel is overwritten.
If you’re writing genre fiction, say a romance or thriller, and your manuscript runs over 100,000 words long (a typical genre novel will be between 60 and 90,000 words, with the exception of fantasy which often goes into 100,000+ range), then this can be a red flag too.
I like to break overwriting down into two kinds: overwriting at the sentence level, and at the content level. These are two very different problems and have very different solutions. First, let’s deal with overwriting at the sentence level.
Unnecessary dialogue tags
Characters that moan, articulate, comment, mumble, snarl, and mutter will quickly irritate the modern reader, and even more if they do so audibly, glumly, loudly, happily, angrily, or earnestly.
In the writing world, we sometimes call these fancy words used in place of said saidisms, and I’m sorry to have to tell you that while they may have been de rigueur in the Victorian era, nowadays readers/agents/publishers prefer simplicity.
I wrote a more in-depth blog post about dialogue tags here.
Unless you’re writing historical fiction or you want your novel to have a formal tone, then more often than not saying “we are going” or “I do not” is going to be distracting for the reader. It’s not how 99% of people speak and will stick out like a sore thumb, especially if it’s in dialogue.
“Helen and Sonia are coming over later. We are going to the cinema.”
“Helen and Sonia are coming over later. We’re going to the cinema.”
Don’t be afraid to use contractions!
You sound like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus
Purple prose. Unnecessarily flowery language that uses more words than are needed and that screams “I’m trying to impress” or “Look how many fancy words I know.”
That’s not to say you shouldn’t aim to write beautifully. You should, of course. But beautiful language should be in service to the story, not the other way around.
Here’s a great article about how to avoid writing purple prose.
You’ve overused junk words
What are junk words? They’re small words or phrases that are just ‘there’, taking up valuable space on the page and doing nothing more useful than padding out your word count. Some junk words might be:
That/very/suddenly/then/that/began to/started to/totally/that
Yes, I know I included that three times in the above list, but there’s a very good reason. It’s because most of the time that can be cut without losing any loss of meaning.
Filter verbs are verbs relating to perception (saw, heard, noticed, etc.) which, when overused, lead to distancing and place a barrier between the reader and the narrator.
Hannah saw Stefan crossing the room.
Stefan crossed the room.
The ‘unfiltered’ version is much more impactful and concise. We’ve lost none of the meaning and managed to cut two words from the sentence. Over a whole manuscript, these could really add up!
I’ve written more about filter words here.
Be on alert for places where you might be unnecessarily repeating yourself in order to get the point across. For example, a beginner writer might be tempted to over-describe emotions, just so the reader really gets what the character is going through.
Marvin was in agony. He clutched his leg as blood gushed from the wound, his face screwed up in pain. “Ahh!” he screamed. “It hurts so much.”
“Ahh!” Marvin clutched his leg as blood gushed from the wound.
Now let’s look at overwriting on the content level. If your aim is to cut your wordcount, this is where you can make the most gains.
Do you really need that description of your main character’s commute into work? Does your novel contain a three-page dream scene that could be cut down to a paragraph or cut entirely?
Do whole chapters go by where the plot hasn’t moved forward an inch?
As a rule, if a scene isn’t moving the plot or revealing character (or more specifically, something new about a character), then it might be time for a rethink.
Maybe you’ve written a romance and you’ve written a scene with the two lead characters eating dinner at a restaurant and bonding over a shared childhood experience. It might be a great scene, but what if two chapters ago you had a very similar scene where your love interests were walking along the beach and bonding over a shared childhood experience?
Rather than emphasising a point, returning to the same emotional beat over and over again can actually have the opposite of the intended effect, leading to irritation, boredom and disengagement from the reader.
Stage directions refer to the tendency for newer writers to follow their characters around the room, narrating every little movement they make in excruciating detail.
Sarah’s stomach growled. Using her hands, she pushed herself up from the sofa and crossed the living room floor, then headed down the long corridor before passing through the doorway into the kitchen. Reaching out with her left hand, she turned the lights on and headed for the fridge. Extending her right arm, she opened the fridge door, and, scanning her eyes up and down the shelves, examined the contents. Crossing her arms, she bit her lip as she considered what she was in the mood for, then decided all she should be bothered to make was a plate of toast.
Often, writers do this because they don’t trust the reader to fill in the gaps for themselves, or because they see the scene playing out like a movie in their head and they want to convey the scene exactly as they see it. But if a character has opened the fridge then we can safely assume at some point she’s extended her arm. If a character has entered a room, we will assume they did so through the doorway – we don’t need to be told!
Compare the above paragraph to this pared down version.
Sarah’s stomach growled. She went into the kitchen to look for something to eat, but nothing inspired her.
Toast it is.
Nothing will bore your readers more than hearing about a character taking a shower or making a sandwich. They do these mundane things every day in their own lives – they don’t want to read about fictional people doing them too! Unless it’s necessary for the plot, take it out.
“Hi Bob,” said Jerry.
“Hey, Jerry, how’s it going?” said Bob.
“I’m fine, thanks, Bob. How are you?”
“I’m okay, Jerry. Hey, wasn’t the traffic today a nightmare?”
“I didn’t have to deal with that, since I get the train.”
“You’re lucky, Jerry.”
These kinds of greetings and small talk might be realistic, but it’s dull as dishwater to read in a novel. Don’t be afraid to jump straight into the juicy stuff.
Also, in real life, people don’t use each other’s names all that much, and when fictional characters do it, it really stands out on the page, and not in a good way. Using names occasionally in dialogue is fine, for instance if one character is trying to get another’s attention, or to emphasise a point. They can also be useful for readers to keep track of who’s speaking if there’s a group conversation going on. Just don’t overdo it.
Overly long character description
Character descriptions that are a long shopping list of features are a common feature in overwritten manuscripts.
He had a long, gnarled face with deep wrinkles in his forehead and around his eyes, which were large and dark brown in colour. The skin under them sagged. His nose was red, probably from too much wine. His hair reached down to his shoulders and was grey and thinning. He wore an old, shabby jacket, a navy blue shirt, and black trousers, and on his feet were a pair of fraying canvas shoes.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but when used multiple times over the course of a novel, or every time you introduce a new character, it can cause readers’ eyes to glaze over. Passages like this break the flow of the narrative, hitting pause on the narrative, and can feel like author intrusion. The highest achievement in fiction writing is for the reader to forget the presence of the writer at all and to just focus on the story.
Instead, try picking out one or two strong features, or else condensing down a character’s appearance to a single vivid image.
He had a face like a bloodhound. She really hated dogs.
You can pepper in more details as the story goes on. Even better if you can weave them into the narrative, linking it to the action as it’s happening or using it to reveal character.
She chortled and tossed her hair, weaving a perfectly coiffed curl around a manicured finger.
Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org