What To Do When Your Manuscript Is The Wrong Length

If you’ve tried to write a manuscript, you’ve probably been at one end of the scale or the other, before. It’s hard to get a manuscript — or even a short story — to end up at the right word count. I know I’ve talked about this before, but a refresher never hurts.

While I’m not cutting down a manuscript to size right now, when a friend asked me for help, I called on all my experience and notes. My first manuscript originally ended at 120,000 words. I trimmed it to 80,000, edited it back up to around 95,000, then trimmed it down under 90,000 again.

For my current work-in-progress, I realized my word count was going to be on the short side, and there was a lot more story I could tell.

So. Let’s talk about how to get your manuscript to the wordcount you need, starting on the low end and working our way up.

If You Need 20,000 words or more

You’re going to have to add a major component. The easiest way to do this is what I’m doing in my current work-in-progress — to add another point-of-view character. But, a side quest can work as well, especially if it’s filtered into the story, not just spliced into the middle.

If You Need Less Than 20,000 words

This is where you’re going to want to flesh out your scenes, or add more internal monologue. Whatever you typically leave sparse when drafting. Perhaps a few character building scenes that flesh out the main and secondary characters and make your readers care more.

If You Need To Cut Less Than 20,000 Words

If it’s just a few thousand, or less than 10% of your work-in-progress (WIP), you can probably get away with cleaning up paragraphs, trimming sentences, and streamlining action.

You might start off looking at each of your scenes. Many writers find that they start scenes too early, and go longer than they need to be. Look at your scenes and chapters — can you trim paragraphs or pages from either end?

If You Need To Cut Over 20,000 Words

If you need to remove 10%-25% of your work in progress? Unless you are focused on one aspect, to the detriment of the story (be it descriptions, all the stage directions, info-dumps, or other) you’re going to have to work a bit harder.

You can try combining background characters, or even secondary characters, and dropping subplots. Perhaps even getting rid of a point-of-view character.

If You Need To Cut Over 50,000 Words

Sometimes, this happens with excessive world building. Sometimes, you’re following too many characters. Sometimes, the plot is too large for one book.

But usually? Just split the story. Find an emotional arch and partial goal and split the story there — or see where you could create one.


Have you ever had to massively adjust wordcount on a project? How did you do it?

3 Comments

  1. Been there, done that. There’s several things to consider.
    1. Why does length matter?
    Because whoever you’re trying to sell it to has specified a max length.
    Trust me, they ALL do. If your story is too long, they won’t buy it.
    They’ll pull it up in their word processor, and see how long it is,
    and probably won’t even read it.
    2. Now, length if it’s too short:
    If you’re writing a novel… well, I have it on good authority (from a writer/editor/publisher) that with only publishing, shorter novels (that is, not the four-book trilogy) are publishable. The big publishers still want at least 80k (for DAW) to over 100k words.

    Several times, in criticisms of my stories, I’ve been told “you need to show that scene, you need to be there, not just reference it”.

    And then there’s the flashback. I have one novel still looking for a publisher that I fought myself tooth and nail against writing one flashback. After two weeks, I finally gave in, and cried while I typed… and when it was done, I’d added 11000 words.

    Length, if it’s too long.
    This is the hard one. Look through what you’ve written with the eye of an English teacher. Did you spend thousands of words on an
    infodump? Pretty much no one’s going to want to read that. Is there
    some way to get the information, without going into excessive
    detail? Can you get the reader to enjoy the story without knowing
    all the details in the infodump?

    As Morgan said, can you combine several minor characters into one? Do they really need to be separate? Remember, this also cuts into backstories.

    And clean and polish. You can do this: I had a breakthrough in my writing last year: I had a 7400+ word short that I wanted to submit to a mag that said, “nothing over 6k words”. I started getting rid of “and” and other unnecessary words (not so it was ungramatical), but restructuring sentences, and was happy if I could get one or two words out of a sentence. I ended up with a better-reading story at just under 6k words… without dropping any characters or scenes.

    Liked by 1 person

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