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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Does This Word Count Make My Book Look Big?

Your manuscript is big-boned. Over the years, it has picked up a few extra words here and there. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Publishers should just accept your manuscript as it is, right? All of those skinny manuscripts are airbrushed anyway.

Besides, Stephen King (not that you’re him) has written a bloated book or two—or three—and no one minds. Yegads, he even re-released an already huge popular book (The Stand) with hundreds of words his editors originally cut put back in—so there you red-penned devils! Snap!

Let’s get serious. Your book is likely overweight and if it doesn’t lower its word count it won’t be able to compete. Time to sign up for Word Watchers and get trim. Because, like Weight Watchers, Word Watchers works!

Word Watchers has developed four key principles that can help you self-edit that extra verbiage from your manuscript. These are borrowed from Weight Watchers directly, but adapted for writers.

Healthy word loss

Q. What’s healthy when it comes to word loss?

A. As trim as possible without sacrificing artistry or voice.

I think of it this way in my writing: If a word can be deleted, it gets deleted. Cut the fat. Scour your writing for throat clearing tactics such as:
  • Introductory phrases: “The point I’m trying to make is...”
  • Redundancies:
    1. “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words)
    2. “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)
  • Wordiness:
    1. “Sarah knew that at her place of employment Jason was knee-deep in advance planning for the next year’s fundraising campaign.” (20 words)
    2. “Sarah knew her co-worker Jason was knee-deep in planning next year’s fundraiser.” (12 words)

Fits into your life

Second, any Word Watchers approach must be realistic, practical, and livable. That means realistic goals. You are not likely to become Ernest Hemingway (renown for being succinct) straight out of the gate. But you can set goals that will help you. Here are a few simple tricks:
  • That/Very: In almost every case, these words can be eliminated.
  • Adverbs: Scorn them. “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” — Mark Twain For more on this.
  • $$$: Pretend you are being charged a quarter for each word. If you take it seriously, you’ll start competing with yourself to pay less each time you write.

Informed choices

At Word Watchers, writers learn not only what to do, but why. If you know why, you gain the confidence to make the right choices for your writing. Here are some of the websites I often cite:
  1. Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips
  2. Purdue University Online Writing Lab
  3. Writer’s Digest Online
I highly recommend American Christian Fiction Writers as a place to get grounded not only in the craft of writing, but in the career of writing as well.

A holistic view

Finally, the Word Watchers approach must be comprehensive. Sustained word loss comes from practicing these and other tips.

One of the best ways to practice tight writing is in a writer’s critique group. A proper critique group will, kindly and in love, kick your writing butt until you’re in shape. They’ll remind you of what you’ve learned (and of how often you’ve had to learn it). They will hold you down and sit on you until you’ve eliminated every extra word—and will expect you to do the same to them. With chocolate.

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor/writer at, where each Tuesday he takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


  1. I love the comparison you make, Mike. LOL Still, this is filled with good information!

  2. As one who finds it easier to write short essays I found this encouraging. Thanks for the tip on the Purdue University Online Writing Lab! Boiler up!

    1. I would say I included that just for you, Stan, but ...

      I, too, love short essays/stories. It takes a different kind of skill set, but is just as rewarding.

  3. This title alone drew me right in! Those are some great examples. I actually enjoy reading the older "adverbial" books (classics), but I know I'm not supposed to write them! I think I tend to be too succinct, so I tend to have the under-wordage problem.

  4. Oops, and I notice that last sentence was far from succinct! Eep.

    1. Heather, blog comments are exempt -- at least from my POV. Good titles do create interest, eh?

  5. Outstanding post, Mike! I loved the analogy with Weight Watchers. Clever. :) I always enjoy reading your writing. It has spark. :)


    Harbourlight Books
    December 2012

    1. MaryAnn,

      Thanks so much! I was on the WW site (thinking of joining) and saw those points. Made me go "Hmmmm."

      This time I listened.

  6. Great advice, Mike! Thanks for sharing with us!

  7. I have the opposite problem; my works are always too short!


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