No, I’m not referring to the sick practice of using razor blades on myself—although there have been times when I’ve been tempted to. I’m talking about cutting words.

A month ago, I received the most helpful rejection I’ve ever gotten from an agent. The agent, who shall remain nameless, said that while my novel was good—well-written, great characters, entertaining story—it was overwritten in many places, meaning over-described, over-rendered.

Good advice is only helpful if the person to whom it’s directed is ready to hear it. Turns out, after so many no’s, I was ready. I looked at my manuscript with an absolutely ruthless eye. If the chapter, scene, sentence or word wasn’t fulfilling a purpose, it got its ass cut.

Luckily I’m blessed with a brilliant wife who is a natural editor, and said wife just happens to be unemployed at the moment. Over the past month, Alexas and I would sit down each morning and read the book side-by-side. Each would make recommendations for cuts, and then we’d argue about it for the rest of the day. And then one of us would give in. Usually me.

I went into this edit with an ideal in mind that I’ve termed The Fred Astaire rule. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but I once read that when shooting wrapped on one his films, Astaire would tell the editor, “Make it as good as you can, then cut ten minutes.” My plan was to cut the bit of excess verbiage lying around, then reduce the book further by 10 percent. I thought additional cuts would be impossible. I was wrong.

In the end, I took a 93,000-word manuscript down to 74,999. Do the math and you’ll find that’s over 18,000 words, or almost 20 percent. The book now reads almost twice as fast, leading me to come up with the following formula:


RS=Reading Speed percentage faster
OWC=Old Word Count
NWC=New Word Count


The formula is BS, but the idea is simple. If you take the percent reduction and multiply it by 4, you’ll get an idea of how much faster the book reads. For example, if you take a 100,000-word book and cut it to 80,000 words (a 20% reduction), the book will then read approximately 80 percent faster.

Along the way I kept an Excel file that tracked the cuts and gave me a running total. Geeky, yes, but it gave me empirical evidence of my daily progress. Besides, I like counting words. You can see a JPG of this file here.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, why is he telling us this? Who cares? What’s his point?

My point, which I had to learn the hard way, is this: Most of the time you can cut more. In the case of my book, I was able to cut so much that I’m now embarrassed I sent out the previous version.

But I’m profoundly grateful to the agent who gave me true, constructive criticism. I feel as though I’ve turned a corner and that representation for this book is just over the horizon. At least Sweetie, my faithful cat, thinks so.

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

Comments (2)

  1. Shan March 18, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Hi Chris,
    I just got through reading Masters of Narrartive Drive, and I am still laughing. I also appreciate the resource links you provide. I put you on a post it note: buy his book. I actually am playing around with a crime/thriller mystery , another reason yesterday I was looking for your blog.