Battling Back the Beast: How to Tame Your Overlength Novel



If you’re like me, you feel a naïve rush of hope every time you spot a new article about overlength novels. Then, by the end of the article, you feel crushing despair. Because the answer’s always the same: if you’re a first-time novelist, and your novel’s overlength, your chances of landing an agent or publisher are slim-to-none.

Sadly, it makes sense – extra-long books cost more to publish (extra paper, extra ink). They take up more horizontal space, meaning fewer copies can occupy the bookstore shelf, and they can also be intimidating to consumers because giant tomes are both more expensive and more daunting to read. For a publisher to take that kind of risk on an unproven author (J.K. Rowling and Stephen King can go ahead and relax) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The arguments against overlength novels are all very logical. The problem is, if you’re like me, and your novel falls into this category, then you’re pretty much screwed, right? You’ve got a product that is most likely unmarketable to agents and publishers. Sure, you could self-publish, but that doesn’t solve every issue. The length will still be off-putting to readers, and you may have to spend (and therefore charge) more if you’re doing a print edition. Another solution might be to split the novel into two or more parts. This will only work if you’ve genuinely got two or more complete stories contained within your bulky mammoth of a book – which unfortunately isn’t the case for the majority of overlength novels (it wasn’t for mine).

The best option for most writers, even those who want to self-publish, is simply to cut your manuscript down to size. An “acceptable” length for a first-time novel is about 90,000 to 120,000 words, according to Writer’s Market. I’ve heard from other sources that even going above 100,000 words is a risk. For fantasy or science fiction novels, you have a little more breathing room, with the maximum acceptable length being around 150,000 words. (This is to allow for the world-building necessary in these types of books.)

So, if your book is over 200,000 words, and you’re not even at the climax yet, you’re probably feeling pretty darn hopeless right now, because that’s a LOT of material destined for the cutting room floor. I know that feeling of despair all too well, because I’ve been there. My novel’s first draft weighed in at almost 300,000 words. Shocking, I know. Hopefully, most people reading this will get to say, “Well, at least mine’s shorter than hers.” That may be small comfort, however, when reality sinks back in and you’re still looking at 50,000-100,000 words of cuts.

Thankfully, the saga of my overlength novel has a somewhat happy ending: the current draft is in the 150,000-word range, and it’s getting closer to “acceptable” length every day. To me, it’s nothing short of a miracle. A time-consuming, frustrating, and frequently heartbreaking miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

So, to all of my fellow overlength novelists out there, I came here today to give you back your hope. I came here to tell you it CAN be done: your novel CAN be whittled down into something that would not make an agent physically cringe at the mere sight of your word count. And I came here, most importantly, to tell you HOW this can be accomplished.

The following are some strategies I used to cut more than 140,000 words from my first novel, shaping it into a sleeker, stronger and hopefully more marketable book:


Go chapter by chapter. Do a breakdown of the vital information each chapter contains (e.g. maybe Chapter Two introduces an important character, or advances the plot in some way). Identify chapters that don’t accomplish very much. Cut those chapters entirely, and find other places to fit in the few stray passages that were relevant to the overall story.

Go plotline by plotline. If your book’s upwards of 200,000 words, chances are you’ve got not just a main plot, but quite a few subplots and other threads woven in there (e.g. the SPEW storyline in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Choose which are the most important to the larger arc of the book. Cut out the rest. And remember to eliminate all traces and future mentions of scenes you’ve decided to delete. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up having the main character referring back to some incident that’s no longer in the book. Cue reader confusion!

Learn to make hard choices. You will have to cut chapters you adore. You will have to eliminate characters you have grown to love, characters who feel like real people. You will have to bring the axe down on some of your most breathtaking descriptions, your funniest jokes, and the scene it took you two months to get perfect. Take a deep breath, wipe a tear from your eye, and DO IT. As Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.”


Go paragraph by paragraph. Weed out anything that wanders, meanders or breaks the flow. Cut out any bits that go off on boring tangents that take the reader away from what the scene is trying to accomplish (e.g. backstory is cool, but if you suddenly zip back to a main character’s childhood for three paragraphs right when he’s in the middle of a conversation, the readers are going to lose their place in the conversation). Also be on the lookout for redundant sentences (e.g. “Greg had hoped to find Mandy somewhere in the building, but he was out of luck. He looked upstairs and downstairs and couldn’t find her anywhere.” I mean, do you really need both of those? They kinda say the same thing. Plus, the first sentence gives away exactly what’s going to be revealed in the second. One of these babies needs to go!)

Change passive to active. Zero in on any instances of passive voice and rearrange those parts into active voice (e.g. change “The tests were handed out by Julia” to “Julia handed out the tests”). This usually cuts a word or two, not to mention the fact that most publishers hate passive voice, so it’s like a “two birds, one stone” kind of deal. 🙂

Go line by line. Check for unnecessary words in each sentence. Like, maybe you have Billy tilting his head back to look up at the sky. Well, if Billy’s looking at the sky, do you really need to say that he’s tilting back his head or do you even really need the word “up?” The mere act of looking at the sky implies his head is tilted back and he’s looking in an upward direction. (Unless Billy’s in an alternate universe where up is down and down is up. Then some clarification would be warranted.)

Learn when to tell instead of show. I know, I know, one of the Golden Rules of Writing is “Show, DON’T Tell,” but you have to know how to apply that rule. A story that tells absolutely everything isn’t going to be very good. But neither is a story that shows absolutely everything. When I was writing my first draft, I took the “Show, Don’t Tell” Rule a bit too seriously, and wound up with long paragraphs describing my character unzipping his backpack, searching around inside it, pulling out his notebook, unzipping a different compartment on his backpack, searching around inside it, pulling out a pen, and then, FINALLY beginning to write in his notebook (after he’d rezipped all the compartments, of course). See what I mean? There are things you must show because they’re vital to plot, character development, etc. Backpack zipping and other mundane tasks like walking and normal breathing are not things that need to be shown in depth. Just do a quick “tell” for those types of things, and you’ll be better off.


Don’t do it alone. Get as much help as you can from friends, relatives, writing group members, English teachers and anyone else you can convince to read your book. Emphasize to these helpers that you need to cut words, and you need their honest opinions about what’s boring, what’s unnecessary, and what just plain doesn’t work.

Set small, reachable goals. Baby steps will get you to the finish line. My initial goal was to cut 100,000 words from my manuscript. However, that was too overwhelming to face all at once, so I broke it down into smaller chunks. I wrote the number “100” on a piece of blank white paper. When I’d successfully cut 1,000 words, I crossed out the “100” and wrote “99.” I chugged steadily along, cutting 1,000 words at a time, and then rewarding myself by getting to cross out the current number and write a lower one. Finally, one amazingly joyful day, I got to write “0.”

Once I’d completed the massive 100,000-word cut, I set a new goal: 10,000 more. This time around, instead of measuring by the thousands, I decided to cut 100 words from every chapter. Since my novel has just shy of 100 chapters, 100 words from each would result in a 10,000 word cut. It worked!

Cut anything that’s not awesome. You want your whole book to rock, right? Well if there’s a paragraph that doesn’t “wow” you, why not just get rid of it? Do the same for chapters, dialogue, plotlines, etc. Make the entire novel sparkle by slicing away any parts that don’t shine quite brightly enough.

And finally:

Remember what you’re fighting for. Sure, you want to get published, and to have a marketable product that people will want to read. But honestly, deep down, that’s not the main reason you’re doing this. Try to remember, through all of the cuts and the long hours and the heartbreak, that what you’re really fighting for is a better book. The very best book you are capable of writing. A book you would be proud to send to an agent, hand to an editor, or simply put out into the world with your name on the cover in nice, bold print.

And however much of your novel you need to cut in order to achieve this, you will get there.

One word at a time.

HarryP Little Spider