I tackled this subject in my Instagram Stories and received a lot of positive feedback – this is a subject writers want to know more about!
Editing to reduce word count is HARD. But across the spectrum, it’s also really crucial. For traditionally-published authors, lower wordcount can make or break whether an agent or publisher will give your book a second glance. For self-published authors, lower wordcount helps reduce productions costs.
But what can you do when you don’t have any more scenes to cut and your wordcount is still higher than you’d like?
This was the dilemma I found myself facing with the first book in my Starchaser series. At 148k, it was just too large for my goals, but I also couldn’t cut any more big chunks out! What to do??
This was where I started tackling FLUFF WORDS.
What is a Fluff Word?
Fluffs words (or phrases) are parts of the story that are technically acceptable but don’t generally add anything to your writing other than inflating the wordcount. When you cut out or rearrange fluff words, it not only trims your wordcount, it also tends to speed up the narrative. This definitely ended up being the case with Starchaser!
What are some examples of Fluff Words?
Here’s a quick “cheat sheet” on some fluff words and phrases that I came across in editing Starchaser 1, and what I changed them to. Different writers may find they have different phrases they could reword or trim based on their own style, so these will not be the same for everyone. Also, note that these are not hard and fast rules. I have left in one or two of each of these in my draft. But compared to the 30+ I used to have in every category, it’s definitely been a big change and improvement! By tackling these topics alone, I managed to cut roughly 15-20k from the draft:
“Out of the” –> “from the“. Ex: “He stepped out of the woods” becomes “he stepped from the woods.”
“Knew that” –> “knew“. Ex: “She knew that time was running out” becomes “she knew time was running out.”
“That” can often be omitted. Ex: “It seemed that he was lying” becomes “it seemed he was lying”, or “the sword that her father had given her” becomes “the sword her father had given her.” NOTE: “That” is grammatically correct when joining verb and noun, such as “the trees that grew in the meadow.”
“Off of” –> “off” or “from“. Ex: “She threw him off of her trail” becomes “she threw him off her trail”, or “He stepped off of the edge” becomes “he stepped from the edge.”
“All of” –> “all“. Ex. “He reviewed all of the reports” becomes “he reviewed all the reports”.
“Of the” This is a big one and has to be taken case-by-case, but I found this to be the one I changed the MOST. It took me about 6-8 hours to get through every instance of this in my draft. “Of the” is a passive-voice phrase that can really lag the narrative. Tightening up the passive into active can trim your wordcount significantly AND speed up the narrative by enormous bounds.
Ex: “The edge of the table” becomes “the table’s edge”, or “the surface of the water” becomes “the water’s surface,” or “the tip of the blade” becomes “the blade’s tip.” Each of these changes the cadence of the sentence – I mean, oops! The sentence’s cadence. See how differently that reads?
BECAUSE this is a cadence issue, there are times you might want to keep “of the” for flow. I’ll give two examples from my own writing:
In Starchaser 1, I had this sentence: “The halls of the Citadel—her home and the kingdom’s crown jewel—looked no different from any other night.” Had I changed it to “the Citadel halls – her home,” it would imply the halls themselves as her home, rather than the Citadel as a whole.
In a later paragraph, however, I started with this: “She could just barely glimpse two of the four bridges that joined the Citadel’s enormous stone plot to the rest of the town. Beyond that, there was a small pocket of coastline visible, glimmering jewel-bright under the light of the full moon.”
When I edited for fluff, I came up with this: “She could just barely glimpse two of the four bridges that joined the Citadel’s enormous stone plot to the town. Beyond that, there was a small pocket of coastline visible, glimmering jewel-bright under the full moon’s light.”
Always remember that you know your own book better than anyone. So if you feel you need to keep an “of the”, don’t feel like you absolutely have to cut it! But especially if the phrase repeats a few times in one paragraph, as above, consider how you can speed up the tempo by shifting a few instances around.
A Closing Note: Dialogue Tags and Actions
This is another big one that falls under fluff phrases. This is something I am still working out in Starchaser: the dialogue tags followed by actions.
I have found a significant way to trim my wordcount has been to look out for places where a character first says, then does. In lots of cases – not all, but lots! – you can speed up the pacing of a scene by looking for places where you can cut dialogue tags before actions.
“I’m fine,” she snapped, slamming the plate down on the table.
“I’m fine.” She slammed the plate down on the table
She slammed the plate down on the table. “I’m fine.”
Notice how each version has a different flavor and cadence? The “snapped” is fine, but we get a pretty good idea of the tone by her motions alone!
If you’re looking to cut down on words in your draft but you’re at a loss for what can be changed, try combing through for instances where you have a dialogue tag followed by an action; see if you can restructure things so the dialogue tag is omitted and the action speaks for the character’s tone.
This is just a smattering of possibilities! I’ll be adding an editorial fluff word cheat sheet to the resources page here on my website so help you guys checklist your way through things. And I’d love to add YOUR fluff words/phrases to my list! Drop a comment with yours below!