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Novels vs. College Essays: Word Count Woes

In the run up to November my daughter and I were both facing deadlines. I was trying to get the final rewrites of my manuscript to my editor, and Catherine was editing her college application essay. We were both having word count issues. My count had ballooned to over 100,000 from a target of 85,000, and Catherine was trying to cut down her essay from 1500 to 650 words.

How could I advise her what she might trim out of her essay when I myself clearly had an issue? On first pass, her essay was strong. She drifted from present tense to flashbacks on background talking about a formative experience she had and the teacher who had encouraged her to get there. I was transported with her to the choir room when she first met the person who would be her advisor and teacher, and up on the stage with her when she claimed her voice. But the college board has a maximum word count, and some of those details, though beautiful, vivid and heartfelt, weren’t ultimately essential to the core of the story.

I’ve heard it said that writers tend to fall in love with their own words. So something carefully crafted being crossed through as redundant does sting, and marking through your child’s words can be even harder.

But cut we must, carefully and as dispassionately as a surgeon take only what doesn’t add to the central point. For Catherine, condensing a couple of paragraphs and trimming down an unnecessary description did the trick, but for me? It required cutting entire scenes and chapters.

Here’s a tip that makes me feel better: clip the cut passages to a file just in case you want them later. The truth? You probably won’t, but at least those treasured words aren’t lost.

And another thing? Cutting back is a lot easier than building up.

Happy writing!

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