As my critique partners can attest, I’m a big proponent of what we call word economy. Not a technical term, exactly, but here's my definition: using only as many words as the story needs.
Of course, every story has different needs. Some need a clipped, concise writing style, while others need a more flowery voice. Some need mostly action, while others need lots of internal reflection and characterization. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, word economy always applies—and should never be overlooked. Word economy will help you keep readers engaged and make you look more professional to agents and editors. Here are my strategies for getting the most bang for my literary buck.
Firstly, I always keep in mind what I consider the Prime Directive of storytelling: Every single element (subplot, character, scene, paragraph, sentence, or word) must further the story in some way. This means each element has to move the plot forward, reveal character, and/or illuminate theme. No excuses.
I know, I know, your three-page description of the sunset is just so pretty! But don’t be so naïve, dear writer. Don’t flatter yourself that an agent, editor, or reader will love those three pages as much as you do. If they’re not meeting the Prime Directive, your story doesn’t need them.
Now, how do you determine which elements are meeting the Prime Directive? As you revise, give each element this litmus test: If you cut this element completely, would the story still stand? Too many side characters, subplots, and descriptive passages—especially if they’re not meeting the Prime Directive—can dilute your story. Cutting or combining them will make your story feel tighter, punchier, more powerful. If, however, cutting an element results in a weaker story, then that element is meeting the Prime Directive. The story needs it, so it can stay.
How could a three-page sunset meet the Prime Directive? Maybe it symbolizes the protagonist’s marriage coming to an end, or brings up memories of her father’s death, or foreshadows the murder she’s about to commit. But if not, cut it. And be prepared to be ruthless with your scissors.
When revising for word economy, it helps to start big and narrow your focus over time. In the early stages, consider word economy on the story level: subplots, characters, and scenes. Does Character X have an integral role in the story? If he serves a purpose, but not an integral one, could you combine him with Character Y to create a single more impactful character?
When evaluating scenes, consider each scene’s role in the overall plot. Does the scene bring your protagonist closer to or farther from her goal? Does it reveal some new, critical piece of information? Does it forge an alliance or drive a wedge between two characters? If not, it may be time to pull out your scissors again.
In later revisions, when your plot, characters, and scenes are in place, look at word economy on the word, sentence, and paragraph level. Is that chunk of backstory absolutely necessary, or is there a more concise, engaging way to deliver that information, such as through dialogue? Could those two sentences of description be reduced to one sentence, or cut altogether? Is that adjective or adverb telling the reader something he doesn’t already know?
Revising for word economy can be a liberating experience. It helps you break your story into elements and look at them more objectively, making it easier to “kill your darlings.” But with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t use your revision scissors lightly, or for the wrong reason. Word economy is not about sacrificing your voice and style so your story can be as short as possible. It’s also not about whittling your story down to fit the word count guidelines for your genre. It’s about what your story needs.
Writing is about giving your story what it needs—and word economy is about trimming the fat so the heart of your story can shine through.