When I began editing my historical young adult manuscript a few weeks ago, I was facing a document that was over 116,000 words. Now, the accepted length of YA novels these days is under 80,000 (although obviously some books exceed that, and there’s no hard-set rule.) So to at least be in the ballpark, I was faced with the daunting task of cutting nearly 40,000 words. In other words, a third of my manuscript.
Now I’m a firm believer in including everything in a first draft. If I think it maybe, might, possibly be a good idea to include it, I do – because you never know which of those little details might ultimately strengthen your story, or even take on a life of their own later.
So if it pops into my head, I use it. What’s the worst that can happen, besides ultimately having to cut a third of your manuscript? At least then you know that everything worthwhile is probably already in there, and it’s just a matter of organizing and trimming the fat.
SO WHAT TO CUT?
I originally thought that foregoing contractions was a good idea, despite its wreaking havoc on the word count, because it made the language sound more antiquated. But after further contemplation, I feel that contractions make the story read faster and more smoothly – and that, I believe, is paramount, especially when writing for a young audience. So I added back all the contractions, and slashed a couple thousand words in the process.
Now some people hate deleting what they’ve written, but I recommend learning to love it. Then, rather than feeling pained when that huge paragraph that took two hours to write disappears, it’ll feel like an equally-huge weight off your shoulders. Plus, the more you delete, the less you have to wade through during your next revision. Less is always more, shorter is (nearly) always better.
(Of course don’t ever permanently throw away large chunks of your writing; save them in a separate document.)
Ask yourself for every paragraph, every sentence: “What does this contribute to my story?” If the answer is “Nothing,” or even “I’m not sure,” lose it. It’s extra fat that will slow your pace and quite possibly bore your reader. And that’s not what you want after all of your hard work.