Shorten your book in 3 easy steps: developmental editing tips

There’s a saying in the Netherlands: writing is cutting. And in my experience (especially for writers with ADHD), this is absolutely true! Cutting words is one of the essential developmental editing tools and can tighten and strengthen a text tremendously. Though it may feel hard and painful at first to shorten your book, the results are almost always worth it.

But how do you go about it exactly? In this post, I’ll tell you how to shorten your book, by drawing from my own recent experience: when I cut 40.000 words from a nonfiction manuscript. 

How do you know if you should shorten your book?

If you’re an ADHD writer who’s just completed your book, you’re probably currently wondering, “How long should my book be?” You’re not the first one to ask me that! That’s why I’ve created this handy graphic to help you figure out your word count goal: with the traditional word counts per book genre. These traditional word counts are a great place to start, because they tell you what publishers and your readers expect when it comes to your book length. 

(And while you’re checking out the Instagram post, why not follow my account for more writing and developmental editing tips?)

But even if you fall within the word count that’s acceptable in your genre, you can still find out that your book is too long. An easy way is to ask a beta reader (ideally someone who can be objective), what they think of the pacing of your book. If they feel it lags in places, or you go off on tangents, that can be clear signs that you need a developmental edit to shorten your book. You can read more about nonfiction book lengths in this post by Clearsight Books

But I don’t need to convince you, or you wouldn’t have opened a blog post on how to shorten your book! 

So let me quickly introduce the project I cut all those words from, so we’re all on the same page. 

The cutting words developmental editing project

A few months back, a client came to me with a nonfiction book that was way over the word count goal. In fact, it was so long it couldn’t be printed (you now know how long that is!). Knowing how painful it can be to shorten your book by a quarter (!), I asked first if he didn’t simply want to turn it into two books instead. But no, my client really wanted this to be one work. I’d  had a look at his manuscript and knew it could be done. So off to work I went!


The project

This book really was a fantastic project. It was written by a psychologist and I knew it could help a lot of people (it certainly helped me!).

Now, the problem with his word count was not that the author just rambled on or got side-tracked. Everything he’d written was on topic – so for people unfamiliar with developmental editing, it might have been hard to see how cutting words could make this book stronger. In fact, a common fear is that if you shorten your book too much, you’ll damage the content, cohesion, or even value of the entire book!

However, that’s not what happened.


The delivery

When I delivered his revised manuscript, I suggested that he first read through the new version start to finish, to see if he felt there was something missing. And based on this first reading (without seeing all that I had cut), he sent me an incredibly excited e-mail. Even though I had cut a quarter of his book, he didn’t feel like I had created any gaps. Instead, he felt the book was in fantastic shape and much more readable and useful for his readers!

All this is to say: it’s absolutely possible to shorten your book to make it even better! Just follow this 3-step process, as I did. (Don’t worry, I’ll give you some developmental editing tips as well.) 

Do you want to just let me shorten your book instead? Click the button below to skip to the bottom of this post and schedule a free Book Edit Strategy Session. 

Step 1: Purpose

When you hire me to shorten your book, I always remind myself of my #1 developmental editing tip: purpose. I asked myself: What is the purpose of this book, what is the author trying to achieve? In this case, the purpose was clear: the author wanted to help his reader heal their traumas and build a thriving and successful life for themselves. 

This purpose gave me a helpful yardstick to help him get closer to his word count goal: I could shorten the book by cutting words in those sections that might be topically relevant, but not directly in service of the purpose. I would take a very close look at, for example, discussions on the biological effects of trauma, social expectations, and case studies. These might be informative and super interesting, but not necessary to help the reader change their life.

If you’re trying to shorten your book, it’s incredibly important to be clear on what you want the book to DO. In online writing communities, there’s lots of talk about themes, topics, arguments, etc. But it’s your book’s purpose that will prove to be your best developmental editing tool and help you get closer to your word count goal.

Step 2: Table of Contents

Cut & merge

With the purpose safely tucked into my developmental editing toolbox, I moved on to the next step: structure. When you’re working on the structure, it’s important to work from big to small. And the top-level structure in a book is very clear: the Table of Contents. 

The first thing to do with this Table of Contents is to see if you can find big opportunities for cutting words and getting closer to your word count goal.  Are there chapters in there that can be cut or merged? 

Again: this sounds jarring, doesn’t it? But it does occasionally happen that chapters (or entire groups of chapters) turn out to be unnecessary in light of the purpose of the book! And shortening a book by deleting a chapter is a lot easier than getting to your word count goal by cutting words from a sentence here or there. 



Order of appearance

After looking at the cutting or merging of chapters, it’s time to focus on the order in which they appear. Does the ToC read like a logical progression of ideas? Now, I hear you think: how does the order of chapters have anything to do with cutting words to get closer to your word count goal? Actually, it might have a lot to do with it!

Ideally, every sentence, paragraph, and chapter flows seamlessly into the next. Chapter 2 might do the groundwork for Chapter 3, meaning that in Chapter 3 you can skip much of the explanation. All you have to do is just refer back to the previous chapter for an explanation of these foundational concepts. But if Chapter 2 appears later in the book – let’s say, as Chapter 10 – the third chapter DOES still need all that explanation. The information has never been presented before in this book, after all. And that means that you have to do the same explanatory work twice: first in Chapter 3, and then in Chapter-2-turned-10.



Word count goal 

Once the ToC is fixed, there’s one more developmental editing tip, which will help you immensely later on. Determine approximately how long each chapter will be. Take your word count goal for the final book, extract the length of the introduction and conclusion, and divide that number by the number of chapters. That’s your word count goal for each chapter. 

Step 3: Chapter-by-chapter edit

If you want to shorten your book to get closer to your word count goal, you need to be cutting words from each of your chapters.

Now that you know approximately how long each chapter needs to be, you can finally start cutting words. Really do take it chapter by chapter and for each, try to get as close to your word count goal as possible. If you’re too lenient early in the book, the final chapters will have to be incredibly short to still get to your target word count for your book. So how do you go about that?



Purpose (again)

Yep, it all goes back to purpose. In this stage, however, we’re working with two purposes: the one for the book, and a separate one for the chapter. Try to formulate a one or two-sentence summary that captures what you want the chapter to say. And with every part or even sentence of the chapter, ask yourself: does this support my two purposes in a way that would be missed otherwise? 

Bonus developmental editing tip: there are a few areas where cutting words can always be done in high quantities without hurting your book’s purpose: in examples and technical explanations. 



Cutting words: Examples

The first thing you can look at when cutting words in a chapter is examples. Oftentimes, examples can help you, the writer, formulate your thoughts while writing. That is why I love examples! But your reader might not need them to understand what you are trying to say. These are some of your writing crutches and scaffolding that can be removed when you do your developmental edit. Look at your examples with great scrutiny and before you know it you’re cutting words by the hundreds. That’s a pretty powerful developmental editing tip, no?



Cutting words: Technical explanations

Second is the more technical information that might be interesting for an expert but, again, does not support your purpose. Like I said when I introduced the project: my client was a psychologist who had amazing knowledge about the effects of trauma on biology. But this information was not necessary for a reader who wanted to understand how to HEAL their trauma. 

Pro tip: "Park" cut sections somewhere else

Another great developmental tip I love using to shorten a book is to not delete big sections. Instead, move them to a separate file. I call mine my “kill your darlings” files. Or, I have a client who calls it his “ideas parking lot.”

You see, it can hurt to shorten your book because you feel you’re cutting words you’ve labored over so hard and for so long. But if you tell yourself, “this is great, it just doesn’t belong here, in this book,” some of that resistance to cutting words will likely disappear. Maybe my client wants to write a second book later, about the biological effects of psychological trauma. These “cut” sections would be a perfect start for such a book!

Getting my help to shorten your book

So there it is: my three-step process for cutting your book down to its essence. This process ensures that you eliminate only the parts that don’t support your main message, and end up with a much stronger book. 

It’s important to know that it’s absolutely possible to cut tens of thousands of words without losing any of the power of your book. There’s hope!

Now, I know that it’s a lot easier said than done. I also know that it’s easier to be cutting words from someone else’s work than to shorten your own book! 

So if you’ve read through these steps and tips but still don’t feel you can do all this work yourself, simply schedule a Book Edit Strategy Session with me. Using the tool below, find a timeslot that works for you and I’ll take care of everything else.

In that session, we can discuss the options and see which might be best for you: I can coach you to shorten your book yourself, or you can hire me as a developmental editor to do the weeding for you. 

Hire me to shorten your book for you