Cutting Clutter: 5 Steps to a Lighter, Brighter Novel

By Whitney Jones

I’m writing a book with a 50,000 word maximum (and that’s being generous, actually). When I finished the first full draft, I had written 71,134 words.

Yes, I had a first full draft. Yay!

But I also had a 21,134 word problem. Boo.

HOW does one cut that many words?

As I began editing, I realized that word count was not my only problem. I realized that, while writing the first draft, I had gone Theme Crazy.

As I pondered my two major problems–word count and theme overkill–it occurred to me that they were related. I had too many words BECAUSE I had too many themes.

So, armed with this revelation, I developed a strategy for editing that’s, so far, helped me cut about 5,000 words. Just a fraction of what I have to do, I know. But I’m confident my strategy will help me cut the rest, and that it will help you cut and clarify your own writing, creating a tighter, more focused story.

Choose, Focus, and Cut

An overabundance of themes is the perfect opportunity for lightening and brightening your work during the revision process.

If you’re anything like me, when you write, you just write. And, as you write, ideas and themes pile up one on top of the other. As you continue writing, you expand some of them,  while others get lost. But the themes you end up dropping don’t just dissolve. They’re still kinda hanging out in scenes and dialogue, cluttering things up.

Laurence Sterne Style Pondering

And so, after some pondering the problem, Lawrence Sterne style, I came up with the following strategy to fix both my word count and thematic problems.

  1. Make a list of all the themes in my novel.
  2. Cross through the ones on the list that are no longer relevant.
  3. Label some themes more appropriately as tone, setting, or characterization.
  4. Read through a chapter with the rejected or relabeled themes in mind.
  5. Cut all development of the rejected themes from the chapter.

And I cut a hell of a lot of words at the end of this exercise. Not only was the finished chapter shorter, it also felt tighter, cleaner, and quicker.

For example, after employing this revision strategy, a paragraph that would have developed the protagonist in a variety of different directions–as lonely, as angry, as shy, etc–now focuses on the single trait that creates the most tension and conflict in the text.

By cutting themes, I cleaned up a character, clarified conflict, tightened my prose, and joy of all joys, decreased my word count.

You’re Not Losing Themes, You’re Gaining a Novel

So try it out for yourself!

  1. Make a list of your novel’s themes
  2. Cut the bad ones
  3. Revise with an eye toward excising any novel development connected to the cut themes

Following this strategy can help you write:

  • Stronger characters
  • Cleaner prose
  • Clearer conflict
  • Fewer unnecessary words

Don’t we all enjoy reading works with strong character, clean prose, and clear conflict? And don’t we all want to develop those strengths in our own writing?

What strategies do you guys use to clean up your prose and cut your novels down to size? Share in the comments! No, seriously, cuz I need to knooooowwwww!



If you found this post helpful, then you may also love this one about structuring your writing time for success!

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