‘Make every word count’ means that every word you use in your story should contribute to the story in some way. I’m not just talking about individual words here, but also sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters and subplots. Everything you write about should contribute to the ‘big picture’ of the story. Why?
Let’s start with words.
Make every word count
For starters, longer sentences are more difficult to comprehend, so loading them up with unnecessary words kills them for your reader. Comprehension plummets and they’ll have to read the sentence several times to make sure they got every piece of information out of it.
Unnecessarily wordy sentences can also make you sound either pretentious or stupid. Your reader can feel like you’re trying to prove just how good a writer you are by shoving as many complex clauses into a sentence as you can. Big words, purple words, talking for the sake of talking. You’re an English major. I get it, okay? Are you going to tell me a story or are you just going to show off?
On the ‘stupid’ side of the argument, wordy sentences can make your reader feel as though you don’t have the skill to say more with fewer words. You ramble, you stumble, you repeat yourself until you figure out what you’re trying to say. Many readers won’t stick around to see how your storytelling skills measure up.
Wordy sentences also put distance between the text and the reader. Like when you hug someone but there’s room for another person in between you. It’s not very intimate, and I want to forget the whole world exists outside the book I’m reading, thanks.
Direct sentences that get to the point and use stronger verbs and better imagery to describe what’s happening make the writing flow better. Make every word count.
Make every sentence count
Unnecessary sentences are the ones that tell me stuff I already know. Maybe they’re clarifying that someone’s angry after they just shouted. I’m not an idiot, okay; I understand subtext. Treat me like an idiot and I’m not going to treat your book so well when I review it on Goodreads. And no, I don’t think I will recommend it to my friends.
Make every scene count
Unnecessary scenes are ones that don’t move the plot forward. Look, I’ll admit that there are characters I love so much that I’d be happy to read about them brushing their teeth, but this generally happens after I fall in love with the book because wow, so much interesting stuff happens. I don’t care if YOU like the scene where nothing happens. I don’t, so cut it out. If I’m not in a new place plot-wise by the end of the chapter, I’m going to put the book down and struggle to pick it back up again.
You might write a scene where something happens, but that something doesn’t contribute to the plot. As a first time reader, I’m not going to know that am I? If you spend an entire scene on something, I’m gonna think it’s pretty damn important. If it turns out to not be important, I’m going to be pretty damn annoyed. Thanks for wasting my time. No, I don’t think I’ll buy your next book, thanks.
It can be hard to know what’s irrelevant (trust me, I know). So when your betas or editor tell you “this is irrelevant, cut it”, maybe you should consider listening to them. Unnecessary parts of your story can irritate, bore and mislead your readers. I imagine that’s probably not the reader response you want for your book.
Go ahead and write all your pretty little darlings in your first draft. When revising it into a story readers are going to love, you’ve gotta cut all the unnecessary parts. Make every word count.
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