Skip to main content

Cut Your Story Down to Size

Is your manuscript too long? Many of the queries I receive begin, “In my 200,000-word novel….” I stop right there. As I tell all of my clients, I can’t sell anything over 120,000 words by a first-time writer. “Help me cut it,” they say, knowing that I spent some 15 years as an editor before becoming an agent.

Is your manuscript too long? Many of the queries I receive begin, “In my 200,000-word novel….” I stop right there. As I tell all of my clients, I can’t sell anything over 120,000 words by a first-time writer. “Help me cut it,” they say, knowing that I spent some 15 years as an editor before becoming an agent.

But I won’t do it. I make them do the cutting themselves. Once it’s cut down to size, I can help refine it. But they need to do the cutting themselves.

—by Paula Munier

And so do you. Only you know your story well enough to determine its basic shape. That said, I have created guidelines that will help you make those big cuts you need to make.

Let’s say that you have a manuscript that’s weighing in at 180,000 words. Start by answering the questions only you can answer:

1) Do you have two books? At nearly 180,000 words you could still have two 90,000-word books.

This would mean that you have a storyline that could accommodate two structures, as follows, with each book coming in at 360 pages (250 words per page):

  • Act One: 90 pages (22,500 words)
  • Act Two: 180 pages (45,000 words)
  • Act Three: 90 pages (22,500 words)

2) Or do you have one book that is simply too long? In which case you need to cut it down to 120,000 words, which is 480 pages (250 words per page):

  • Act One: 120 pages (30,000 words)
  • Act Two: 240 pages (60,000 words)
  • Act Three: 120 pages (30,000 words)

Answer these questions by writing out the basic storyline in Major Plot Points only: Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, Denouement. Breaking it down into these basic big chunks should help you figure out if you have one book or two, and once you know that then it will help you break it down into acts. Once you have the acts and accompanying plot points, you can cut to the word counts I’ve outlined above. It will be easy because anything that doesn’t get you from plot point to plot point must go.

This may not be what you want to hear, but it really is what you need to do. For more on plotting, check out my “Build Your Own Plot Perfect” Boot Camp at the upcoming WD West conference: http://www.writersdigestconference.com/ehome/61986/117547/?&

And Happy Cutting!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.