As a new writer, the first mistake most of us compulsively—and even subconsciously—make, is manipulate our sentences to increase word count. We go out of our way to phrase things in complex ways to fill the pages and meet that imaginary minimum word count requirement—the one we only discovered by Googling the phrase “how long should a novel be?” So we throw in a few prepositions, explain every single task our character completes, and describe every minor scene down to the last button on the grey, tufted, linen couch.
Sure, this little trick worked wonders back in the day when we pulled all-nighters to finish those seven-page essays or research papers due the next morning, but only when the assignment was an immediate “F” if the word requirement was not met. Otherwise, your teacher or professor might have noted that your paper was wordy or superfluous—a comment I received during a critique of my first edition of The Vanquished.
This eye-opening critique pushed me to recognize my mistakes and release a polished version that lacked distracting, scene-pausing descriptions, interactions or inner thoughts with the main character that hardly amounted to anything, and sentences that read a little clunky (binge-watching the entire series of Downton Abbey while writing the rough draft isn’t such a great idea when your inner voice isn’t yet developed). Since then, however, I’ve noticed many authors repeating the same mistakes as they try to get their novel as thick as possible.
As you’re writing your story—be it a short story or full-length novel—ask yourself a few questions:
- Fluff—Is what I’m writing important to the development, or does it exist simply to fluff up my story and make it appear longer and more complex? Does this scene propel the story forward, or does it slow the pace, distract from the plot, and leave the reader confused in the end?
For example: If you have repeated, similar scenes of meaningless, every day conversation between two characters and the scenes start and end with nothing else happening, it’s probably fluff. Try removing it and see if you miss it.
- Over Prepping—Are the sentences too wordy? Over prepping is when you use an unnecessary amount of transition words in your narrative—like of, that, after, on, to—leaving your sentences complex and the story slow moving. Prepositions are a necessary part of the story. Too few prepositions can be just as bad and look as amateurish as too many. So do not use the find and replace feature in word to remove more despised ones like of or that—any seasoned reader will know exactly what you did and probably roll their eyes. However, be modest when using them. Reread the sentences while removing one preposition at a time and see if it reads smoother. If so, you can probably go without it.
- Over Specifying—Another mistake we make as new writers is try and cover all our bases to keep the reader from being confused during the story. We worry that we aren’t being clear enough, and in turn we specify that the character opened the door of the house, then walked through the door, then closed the door of the house. See how specific that is? There is no way the reader won’t know to imagine the character doing everything that was just stated. But is it necessary? This is where we learn to do something new: trust our readers. We all have varying degrees of imagination, and we all know what it looks like to enter a house. You could easily state that he/she opened the door and went inside, and the reader would never claim you left a hole or that they didn’t know whether the door was open or closed. If it wouldn’t confuse you, it probably won’t confuse ninety-percent of your readers.
- Overt Descriptions—How many times have you skimmed over paragraphs of description just to get to the action? I know I have countless times. When I decided I wanted to start writing full time, I actually spent a few years just reading novels word for word, forcing myself to read through the boring parts that I had never taken the time for when I was younger. I was ecstatic when I finally connected with other writers and learned I wasn’t the only one to dislike scene-pausing descriptions. Chunks of description slow down the pace and distract from the immediate action or conversation taking place. Be careful where and how you use it to keep your readers engaged in your story. If whatever you’re describing doesn’t really contribute, you can probably get away with only a sentence or two. If it’s a main character or special object, take enough time explaining it so your reader knows it’s important, but don’t forget to keep it interesting. You want your reader invested in your story, not muddling through it just to get to the end.
To put it simply: word count does not make a story—and that’s great news for us. Once we stop trying to come up with ways to increase our word count—planning sentences out in our heads that sound more intelligent complicated than how we would normally speak, adding scenes that contribute nothing to the story in way of character or plot development, and looking up pictures and technical names of grey, tufted, linen couches that only exist for the character to shove a zombie into, we get the ultimate freedom of focusing on the best part—the story. And if you’re having fun writing it, I can guarantee your reader will have fun reading it.
Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.