How to Cut Thousands of Words Without Shedding a Tear

cutting snowflakes

Strategies for Writers, part 3 of 3

Is your book too long? Does it feel a bit wordy, perhaps slightly bloated?

Or . . . does it feel perfect but it’s a little high in word count?

There comes a time in every writer’s life when they need to reduce their word count. Ack! Not my precious words! Even if your word count is fine, most writers would benefit from tightening up their manuscripts before submission. (I, for one, would appreciate it.) But how do you do this?

Most writers can significantly shorten their manuscript simply by eliminating extraneous adverbs, adjectives, gerunds, and passive verbs, i.e. things you don’t need anyway. If you cut 10 words per page in a 350-page manuscript, you’ve already shortened it by 3,500 (unnecessary) words.

So how do we do this? Here’s a checklist of things to consider cutting:

→ Adverbs, especially those with “ly” endings. Ask yourself if they’re necessary.
→ Adjectives. Often people use two or three when one or none is better.
→ Gerunds. Words that end in “ing.”
→ Passive voice: Over-use of words like “was,” “were” and “that” indicate your writing may be too passive. Reconstruct in active voice.
→ Passages that are overly descriptive.
→ Passages that describe characters’ thoughts and feelings in too much detail (i.e. long sections of narrative or interior monologue).
→ Passages that tell the reader what they already know.
→ Unnecessary backstory.

Here’s a list of words to watch for. Carefully consider their necessity and effectiveness:

about, actually, almost, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, just then, kind of, nearly, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, truly, utterly, were.

(Make use of the “search and replace” function in Word to help with this process if there are specific words you tend to overuse.)

Once you go through this exercise, you’ll find your manuscript remarkably cleaner. Try to have fun with it!

And remember, no matter how many words you’re able to cut, your editor will always find more.

What are your secrets for reducing word count?

This is an encore presentation of a previous post.
  1. I often remove conjunctions. It sometimes works.

  2. Harry Nguyen says:

    In order to keep track of the number of word and character in the typing text, I use this Chrome extension It has a web version at and it works like a charm.

  3. Coo Roberts says:

    what type of editing is it that cuts my page number down without losiing any story

  4. Greg says:

    Some in both my workshop groups need to learn this. It’s amazing how few people do this… drives me up the wall.

  5. Brina Brady says:

    Thank you for the tips.

  6. ilikepancakes says:

    thanks for the tips!

  7. Mindy says:

    Thank you for writing this. Now I feel justified for the edits and rewrites I’ve been working on with my ‘break in’ novel. I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of you and your blog.

  8. Ros says:

    Thank you for posting this, I’ve been looking for a redundant word checklist for a while. I’d also add “apparently”, one of my bugbears, to that list.

  9. Catherine Hudson says:

    okay… here goes….
    My first novel which I had mentally labelled as a ‘story’ and (note here Stephen) had decided no human alive was ever going to see –

    was 187,000 words.

    feel free to laugh.
    So, after following this blog ALOT, re-reading it and cutting it back about 10 times (torture, absolute torture) it is now around 127,000.

    And, every reader has either enjoyed it – or rung me saying how they could not put it down or stop crying.
    I thought I would get a stomach ulcer from the nerves when I gave it to my first reader.
    I’ve written 3 novels and I’m not published…yet. We must see ourselves as God does – he just looks to his right to His Son. For as He is so are we in this world.
    If I could overcome all this you can – Go Stephen!

  10. Lori Potter says:

    I know this is like, so three days ago, but I have one more question. WHY are authors asked to cut words from their manuscripts? Is it because of the cost of publishing, and if so, does e-publishing offer the possibility of adding more words to an electronic version of a book? Just curious…. 🙂

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Usually newer writers use too many words. Simple as that. Manuscripts are often a bit bloated with all those things I mentioned in the post. So, the main reason to cut words is to “tighten up the prose” to create a better reading experience.

      The other reason is that publishers have decades of experience and experimentation telling them what length of books tend to sell best in each genre.

      And yes, digital publishing is already changing all of that. Book length is looked at quite differently now.

  11. Mesu Andrews says:

    This could not have come at a better time! I have to cut 11k from my WIP, and your tips are fantastic–all of you! Thanks so much!

  12. sandra gardner says:

    I have the opposite problem! maybe it comes from my journalism background — (being cut off at a comma if I went over the word count for a column, etc.) but I have a lot of trouble (I don’t believe in padding, etc.) fleshing out my fiction to make a reasonably sized novel. for example, my first draft of my new mystery novel was at something like a 50,000 word count! After consulting with a mystery writer friend, she said that i had to add at least another 10,000 words. I finally did, actually, it ended up at 65,000– but it wasn’t easy. wish I had the other problem– then I’d just cut, cut, cut — after lots of editing, of course!

  13. Excellent post! Thanks for all your wonderful advice, Rachelle 🙂

  14. I once terrifyingly deleted thousands of words from a manuscript – all 3 chapters from the front and all 2 chapters at the end, and then mercilessly cut in between–and this was right after I’d sent it to my editor as “complete” – something bugged me so much that the next morning I asked for her not to read it – to give me another week to “fix something.”

    I’d always thought those chapters/words were needed, but boy am I glad something or someone poked me about it that night!

    I think back to that now and know that if I’d have left those chapters/words in that book, it’d not be the “right” – I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not afraid of the Delete Button every time I think of that book!

  15. Here is a link to a small program that I find very useful and easy to use:

    You paste your manuscript into the program window and it calculates how many times each word appears in it. The program displays a list of words and their frequency. Inspecting the list of words with high frequency will tell you if you have been overusing any of them.

  16. Janey Goude says:

    A timely post. I’m getting ready to do a final edit of a manuscript I’m ghostwriting. These tightening strategies will come in handy! A thousand THANKS!

  17. I haven’t discovered my secrets yet … Have to cut 38k from my current manuscript and believe is will be both doable and largely pain-free.
    Thanks for the tips though. I’ll be referring to them as I go 🙂

  18. Norma says:

    Guilty, guilty, guilty. Oops!!!


  19. Karey says:

    This was a really great post with some valuable ideas for polishing a manuscript.

    I am so excited to have found your blog. I’m trying to go through and read some of your past posts. Thanks for providing such a valuable resource.

  20. Amanda says:

    I don’t usually have trouble cutting adjectives and adverbs and the like. It’s when I find a particularly lovely passage that just doesn’t need to be there that I am reluctant to cut.

    My trick is to make a slush file. I place all my lovely tidbits in that file so I don’t feel so bad about completely cutting something I’m attached to or think is well written, and yet it is no longer in the MS.

    This helps me anyway! Great idea for a post!

  21. Peter DeHaan says:

    I am relieved that I am largely innocent of using the infractions you cite in the list of words to avoid.

    Currently I am doing battle with “that,” a word I type with alarming frequency even though I don’t need to use it.

    I once heard an author quip that she cut her novel by 1,000 words merely by removing erroneous occurrences of “that.”

  22. H.G. Ferguson says:

    One more comment from me about alleged “passives.” “They were going” is not, not, not “passive.” It is called Imperfect ACTIVE Indicative. It may not be the strongest way to say something, but let’s don’t call it “passive.” The New Testament, for example, uses it quite frequently — continuous or ongoing action in the past. “Passive” means something is DONE TO THE SUBJECT, the SUBJECT is ACTED UPON, not performing the action. “They” are doing the “going.” “They were going” is not passive. Thank you.

  23. J E Fritz says:

    The word search function really helps find out those hanger-on words. I’d suggest adding “pretty” to that list. Maybe it’s just me, but I use it a lot.

  24. Great post, Rachelle! And something I really needed to hear. Having recently put the coveted “The End” on my second manuscript, I am now working on some more extensive editing. My problem is when I edit, I don’t find that I do much trimming.

    The first time around that wasn’t such a bad thing as my first manuscript was on the lighter side, word wise. This time I am at a loss. I finished right at 100K words. I am about 60 pages in and I am already up another thousand.

    I know most ranges for full length novels run 80-100k. How many words over 100K would you say is acceptable for romantic suspense?

    I’m going to put these tips to good use and hopefully not have to take a hacksaw to it later.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Amanda says:

      You know, i do two kinds of editing. THe first is what I call content editing. That is, making sure that the STORY is right, that everything matches up and makes sense. When I do this kind of editing, I’m not concerned with making the writing as clean as it could be.

      I save that for the second edit, or clean up edit. That is where I actually trim and focus on the flow and language.

      To my mind these are very different functions requiring a different mind set. If I were you, I’d keep on with that first edit and then go through again to clean up and trim. (Also, I’d keep it under 100K! 🙂 )

      Good luck to you!

  25. Joe Pote says:

    I often slip into passive speak, and can reduce words while bring clarity by switching to active mode.

    words ending in ‘ing’ are another big one for me (which relates to the passive speak).

    “They were going to the store” becomes “They walked to the store.” It reads clearer and uses fewer words.

    Great tips, Rachelle! Thanks!

  26. Sara says:

    What a great post and ensuing discussing! Thank you so much. In addition to all the great ideas that previous commenters suggested, I think what helped me was to put on my editor hat…to look at it with as much emotional detachment as possible. I asked myself, “How would I want to read this if it was written by someone else?” It was also helpful to work with a critique partner for this same reason–he wasn’t attached to my work at all and neither was I to his. Voila!

  27. Reba says:

    Thanks for the post Rachelle, it was very interesting and helpful. I will be looking at this again when my manuscript is finished.

  28. These strategies really help! While revising my last manuscript, I had to cut 20 words a page to meet my word count goal, and getting rid of those kinds of extraneous words helped me do a big chunk of that. I think my problem right now is describing too much the characters’ movements, physical reactions, etc. There doesn’t need to be so much looking and glancing and gazing; a lot of it can probably be inferred. Like Dale above me said, control + F is a useful tool!

  29. I like to clean up my manuscript by using
    the word finder (ctrl F) to pinpoint the
    words I tend to use most often. The ones
    you mentioned, Rachelle, plus looked, glanced, thought, wondered, later, before, of the, nodded, smiled, grinned,
    laughed, little, a few.

    • nuku says:

      Aha! I use every one of those! My characters forever have a smile pasted on their lips.
      Do you use a sentence set up like, “He did this and this, then that”? I constantly have an ‘and/then’ thing going on. ‘As’ is also an addiction.

  30. Rachelle Gardner says:

    There’s no “hard and fast” rule about pretty much ANYTHING in writing, and on’t let anyone tell you there is! Take into account what YOUR manuscript needs in terms of pacing; and thing about readers’ attention spans. Personally I usually recommend between 2,000 and 5,000 words per chapter, but 5k is getting kind of long.

  31. Lori Potter says:

    I have a question! ….*raises hand*….
    Is there any hard, concrete rule on how many words one should include per chapter for a memoir piece?
    I’ve read it’s anywhere from 3000-5000, but I wanted to poll everyone here to see if y’all have any insight in this regard. Are there requirements out there we need to know about?

  32. Cathy says:

    My brother made this note on my MS just last night:

    “Every word you cut gives its power to the words that remain.”


  33. I cut 10,000 words from my first manuscript. It wasn’t quite as hard as I though it would be. I ended up with several scenes that I needed to write for myself, but didn’t need to be in the book. As a result of being pushed to cut those I now better recognize scenes that don’t quite belong *before* I finish writing them.

    And I never could have done it without you asking me to cut it down before I submitted.

  34. Slice, dice, and chop. Not just for cooking. 😉

    Guess what I’m doing today?

    Thank you, Rachelle, for this much-needed advice.

  35. H.G. Ferguson says:

    I’d like to join the adverb discussion/debate/diatribe. From whence does all this hatred of adverbs come? By and large from a misunderstanding of and lack of appreciation for their proper use. Like anything, they can be overdone. They can be ridiculous, as in “He laughed titteringly.” Yes, you WANT to kill that particular construction, swiftly. And yes, that is an -ly word describing with what intensity you wish to perform that particular action. And it is perfectly (another -ly word) acceptable. To eradicate a part of the English language from professional writing, especially (another -ly word) fiction, only (another -ly word) impoverishes style. And all too often, “seldom use” actually means — another -ly word — “NEVER EVER AT ANY TIME USE.” Adverbs are a legitimate part of speech and, when used judiciously (another -ly word), add color and dash to one’s expression, not unnecessary clutter.

    • Amanda says:

      That’s the point though, isn’t it? To use an adverb judiciously is to make it more interesting. Just like anything else, when over used (which they often are, hense their discussion here) adverbs become tedious.

  36. Christie says:

    I have run into this advice before and so have applied it, I hope well. But even before cutting words, I find I have the opposite problem.

    My word count always falls short.

    Even in grad school, my thesis was significantly shorter than it ought to be. It seems I am just too good at being succinct.

    Which is a terrible recipe for writing a novel.


    • Help, hell–I like short novels, personally. And just because your novel doesn’t fit the industry standard doesn’t mean it’s unpublishable. If it’s a well-told story, then it’s the right length.

    • Erin Healy says:

      I agree with Stephen and Josh. The right length for any story is simply the length it must be. Word counts DO affect publishers’ P&L models, and what readers are willing to pay–but they don’t affect literary perfection.

  37. Philip Heckman says:

    The problem is emotional attachment. We writers can become so fond of our creations that cutting words feels like abandonment. Protect yourself by saving the current (longer) version of your text and making cuts in a copy. (“I haven’t really betrayed you, my precious child. Look, I’ve enshrined you in an archive.”) After a day or two, you’ll come to think of the edited copy as the current version and you can move on with it guilt-free. Repeat as needed.

    • Sara says:

      LOL. I like the enshrined analogy. I keep a cut file and back-up versions, but I hadn’t thought of this as pacifying the MS. Love it.

  38. Cutting words began as a task that has morphed into a game. After several drafts, I enjoy searching for just the right word to convey the same meaning as several words. Words that can be cut stand out on the page. I’m challenging myself, and it’s fun.

  39. Donna Pyle says:

    I tend to like the “ly” words. Ugh. But scanning through to remove them sharpens my writing skills as I grapple with re-phrasing or choosing alternate words. Thanks for your list! I’m saving it for current/future use!

  40. Jill says:

    I especially concur with the last two. And I have my own problems of style I’ll have to tone down. Scene descriptions–love reading them, love writing them. Place is another character for me, and I love well-placed character descriptions. I also have a deep love for adverbs, and I’m certain an editor will put a stop to this elicit affair at some point. But for now, the rhythm they create gives me a musical high. I’ve already reined in much of this behavior, to be fair on myself! 🙂

    • Jill says:

      Wow, I just did ten pages, and this is fun. Most editing is tiresome, but cutting words is heartening. I like this–trying to get my book back under 90,000 words. The burdens we carry…..

  41. Erin Healy says:

    I cut more than 10K words out of my second draft of The Baker’s Wife, and almost 200 pages out of my first draft of House of Mercy. This required huge chainsaw cuts as opposed to scalpel cuts, but they made a huge difference. What helped me:

    > I keep a document of “Cut Text” so that when I cut, I don’t actually throw away. It’s less painful to feel I could reinstate a beloved phrase or sentence if I really can’t live without it. In the end, I rarely do.

    > A huge weakness of mine is to spend too much time in character introspection. It’s getting easier and easier for me to cut head time and replace it with character action/behavior.

    > I try to pay attention to scenes that feel tedious while I’m writing them, or boring when I’m revising them. Chances are, the reader will find them tedious and boring too. Sometimes whole scenes must go.

    > Like compressing two words into one, sometimes two or more scenes can be collapsed into one. I want my scenes to advance plot, characterization, and theme all at the same time. It’s surprising how often I find scenes that only accomplish one or two of these things. Scenes that do double or triple duty are good for pacing and reader engagement!

  42. Thanks Rachelle…I cut and cut and cut some more, but now I have a few guidelines! Great post….


  43. Great advice, Rachelle.
    Like Kara, the first thing I do on reviewing my first draft is decide whether a scene moves the action forward. If not, out it goes (and if there’s good info there, I work it in elsewhere).

    Like Ann, I’m in love with the word “just,” as my first editor, Barbara Scott told me. So I also do a word search for it and remove or change in where possible.

    Finally, as Rachelle suggested, I search for what I’ve heard Deb Raney call “weasel words,” and remove them.

    Since I tend to try to “write tight” in the first place, I don’t often have to cut a ms. because of length, but I’ve learned to remove extraneous material. Try as I may, though, Rachelle’s right– the editor will always find more.

  44. Great post as usual. Mary DeMuth advised me about a book called “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman. It was so helpful. He talks about all the excess words we don’t need. The most helpful thing to me was the use of commas.

  45. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this series – I’ve learned and am implementing these in my writing. I find I repeat myself or I use ‘just’ too much. Thank you for helping us become better!

  46. Lisa C. says:

    Thanks for this. Your list along with some of the other comments are excellent suggestions. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t WAIT to get cutting!:)

  47. Excellent list! I’d already started cutting a lot of overwriting from my mainstream novel and this is a good reminder. Thanks.

  48. Very timely! I’ve been polishing and refining along those lines (‘maiming’ the MS, someone else said; let’s call it ‘beautifying’ the MS). Thanks for posting a neat and tidy list! That list is getting copied and planted right at eye level in my work space.

  49. Love these tips! As an editor and writer, I pretty much ask myself, “How can this be worded differently and in fewer words?”

  50. Ann Bracken says:

    Like a few here I just love the word just. If I could just write without that one word cropping up in just about every sentence, I’d be so much better. I’m just sure of it. 🙂

    Another trick I’m learning is to let go of telling the reader what the emotion is rather than only showing it. “She felt angry as her hands balled into fists” easily changes to “Her hands balled into fists.” Readers are smart enough to pick out which emotion is being felt.

    I had to stop myself from writing just at least three times in the previous paragraph, LOL!

  51. A hot topic for sure and thanks Rachelle for some excellent advice. I’m doing a “find” on the words you’ve suggested as a test right now! I haven’t been able to read everyone’s comments but generally agree that the best writing seems to occur in stream of consciousness and in that case some of us just throw the “rule book” away. I’m not published but follow a lot of writers who share this theory. I already know I’m guilty of too much description and unnecessary backstory. A trick I use to reign myself in is to playback my writing through “voice” (my computer reads it back to me) on my MAC. I can alway spot when a scene is dragging or going off course by doing this.

  52. Dana Bailey says:

    When I wrote my ms, I kept a lot of this in mind. I stayed clear of ly words and other extraneous words — or at least I tried to. Even keeping this in mind, I still have places where I’m overly descriptive.

    I’ve also heard to watch out for the word as.

    And watch dialogue. Someone mentioned the word ‘that’. I too take that out when I can. But there are other areas where words creep in that, especially in dialogue, are unneeded. When we speak we don’t use perfect English often leaving out words. People don’t always speak in full sentences to each other.

    “How’s the desert?” “This is excellent.” Or “How’s the desert?” “Excellent.”

    Oh, and my pet peeve is when people spell out acronyms. Unless it’s something out there that the reader won’t get or that the character doesn’t understand then spell it out, but if it’s obvious please use the acronym. Use the character’s voice. Don’t spell out for the reader.

  53. Jeanne T says:

    Loved all the ideas presented, Rachelle. The tips in the comments are also valuable! One of my pesky words is, “just.” I look for that with Search and Replace when editing.

    Also, when I’m editing/revising, I look for places where I’ve used two sentences to tell about the same thing. One of my weaknesses. 🙂 I’m learning to show the same thing in one sentence. Or, when my characters are conversing, sometimes I change a thought and make it something the character says instead.

    Not sure ifthis makes sense, but I’ve found putting more between the quotes tightens my writing.

    • Ah, great tip, “more between the quotes”.

      Only once in my ms did I ramble on about the same thing using more than one sentence to convey the same thought. It was because a character was purposely being annoying as opposed to a grammatical problem.

      • Jeanne T says:

        I stole that tip from Rachel Hauck.:) I usually find that I try to “show” something, and then in the next sentence I find that I’ve also “told” it. Gotta love first drafts and doing the edits. I love the editing process. Your character sounds like he was good at “annoying.” 🙂

    • Oh man, I did the Wordle thingy and found I’m a Just junkie too! But my main habit seems to be “like.” I saw that and was like no way!

  54. Rachel Phifer says:

    I recently cut 15k. A few scenes had to go, but I also found that a lot of prepositions were unnecessary. I’d thought I was writing in close POV, but when I looked for words to cut, I was surprised how many, “she thoughts” or “he noticed” I had. The ms was much stronger without those anyway.

  55. TC Avey says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve noticed I tend to use the word “just” too much. It is making me aware of other words I can cut out.

  56. Sarah Thomas says:

    I plug my entire manuscript into–it turns any block of type into word art. The trick is, the more you use a word, the larger it is. The first time I used it, I was pleased to find my main characters names and some key nouns all in giant letters. Unfortunately, the word JUST was also huge. It’s a great way to find those words you overuse. (Mine are just and little.)

  57. Josh C. says:

    Ah, yes…when I began my first novel, “-ly” adverbs, four or five adjectives in a sentence, and huge swaths of passive voice were rampant. See, I made the mistake of believing I was being “artful” with my use of language. When I read over it, well, I read enough in my genre to know it was pretty bad. And also, in revision, there were sections I was rather proud of (as far as story, if not the writing itself) that had to go. Just no room in the manuscript for it. So, instead of trying to be an artist, now I just write the story without all of that. One must first learn to follow the rules of the craft before becoming a stylist.

  58. Call me a nut job, but I LOVE chopping and tightening. Makes me giddy.

    • Joy says:

      I have seen an improvement in speed but, only somemites. I have noticed that when I have a lot of tabs open(say 10 or so) then, my computer slows down dramatically. Not sure why. Wouldn’t mind some insight.

  59. Boy, this is a timely post. Just cut 10,000 words from my manuscript over the last couple months using a lot of the suggestions you mention. I also cut scenes that, though they were lots of fun to write, really don’t support the story enough to justify the word count. It was difficult, but the story is definitey tighter, and the smaller word count gives me a wider potential for representation. Thanks for the additional suggestions. I think I’ll try the “search” function and see what extras I have left.

  60. I call this putting your ms on a treadmill to make it lean. There’s no better way than ditching the passive voice for the active voice. It’s tighter and packs more punch.

  61. Barb Sawyers says:

    I love your emphasis on the emotional attachment most people have to their words. That’s probably trickier than deleting adverbs and other great tips. Here are some more, which I recently shared on a guest post at Write to Done.

  62. Sue Harrison says:

    Rachelle, I love this post. Your suggestions are exactly right and it’s such a great option for a novelist to cut unnecessary words rather than needed scenes!

    Another possible area for cuts is those “pet” words we writers seem to use, often a different one for each manuscript. Lately mine has been “juxtaposition.” How lovely. At least it doesn’t tear out my heart to cut it!!

    • I love my pet words. I try to make them sit and stay and only come when called. 😉

      Have you ever read a book in which the pet words were so obscure you had to pull out a dictionary? That shows great pomposity.

      • Sue Harrison says:

        And juxtaposition falls into that category. Why it’s chosen me to help carry out its nefarious scheme of undermining literary careers, I can’t imagine. Maybe because I’ve ignored it for most of my life. You know the old saying, “A word scorned…” 🙂

        • But it sounds so good!! So does ‘nefarious’. Another one that I like is ‘abject’. My personal pet word is ‘utterly’. My main hero is English, so I can get away with using it. Rathah smashing!

  63. Cathy West says:

    I already have this printed out and sitting next to me. It’s very helpful indeed. Doesn’t make the process any less painful, but it does help to know I’m not alone in this!

  64. Ohhh. I don’t feel so good right now. It’s like I just fed 35 people at a dinner party last night and now the hospital is calling wanting samples of everything.

    My MS spans 30 years, it’s thick and full of meat. Ugh. Estoy strung out.

  65. Thanks, once again, for really helpful advice! Unneccessary back story is one of my bad habits. When I feel the need to trim, that’s where I begin.

  66. Leaving the writing for an incubation period is always helpful. It’s amazing what extraneous material can be found after examining with a fresh eye.

    I believe editing out the superfluous in our writing makes us much better writers. Overwriting is the curse of the beginning writer. When I published a newspaper with my ex, he would place all the ads and then leave me blank space leftover for writing my column. I had no choice but to get my point across in the fewest words possible. Great exercise!

  67. Rick Barry says:

    Prepositional phrases often add unnecessary fat. In many cases you can cut these and gain a crisper, leaner sentence with more impact.

  68. Janet says:

    I forgot to mention a tip I learned from a fellow author. He told me to set up a “cut” file and save all the passages and scenes I cut in that folder. That takes a lot of the remorse out of the editing process. Who knows? Maybe those brilliant bits are the seeds of the next book.

    • There’s no “who knows” about it in my case; my chief work in progress right now, and the third book in Return of the Gods, sprang from a cutting I yanked out of the second book.

      Think of it this way–if the creative side of your brain cared enough to create some prose, then it’ll eventually find a way to use it. If not, worst case is you’ve wasted a few bytes.

    • Sue Harrison says:

      I use a cut file, too. It saves my heart!!

    • I love the cut file idea!

    • I’ve been writing scenes that haven’t happened yet in the timeline of the story. The words and scenes are saved and I don’t have to panic over what I forgot. Thank heavens for files!

    • Sara says:

      I do this too and it definitely makes it less painful! And who knows – maybe I can use some of it, somehow, in future works!

    • I do it a little differently: I copy the entire manuscript into a new document and do my edits there. Then I have two complete copies of the story: the original version and the edited version.

      But it probably amounts to the same thing. 🙂

  69. As an Indie, I don’t have to worry about word counts except as a way to label my works–the last work I published was technically a “novella” due to its word count, and so it was labeled as such. But if my next book ends up being plus or minus compared to the “standards of the genre” according to the publishing industry, well, then, phooey on them. Besides, every writer I’ve talked to or read on the topic says word counts are a superfluous concern in storytelling anyway, and a scan of the word counts of those big-name folks who can have pretty much whatever they want published seems to back that up.

    That said, there’s no excuse for crappy writing, and your suggestions on what words to examine closely are good ones. That’s “examine closely,” not “avoid entirely.” The English language includes adverbs, the perfect tenses (incidentally, perfect tense is NOT the same as the passive voice), etc., for a reason, but they shouldn’t be overused any more than the stately exclamation point that Twain loved to pick on should be. It has a purpose! *ahem* 🙂

    • Man, I wish I could edit my own posts. Progressive tenses, not perfect tenses, are what RG exemplified in her post. Same diff in terms of my argument, but I know some English major is gonna scold me over the misspeak. 🙂

    • I like the part about present and past perfect not being the same as passive. It is so irritating when someone edits something and scribbles a red penned “passive” over “I have not yet begun to fight!”

  70. Janet says:

    When I make the first pass on edits, I try to look for places where I tell the reader too much. I cut out anything that triggers a “so what?” response. As writers we have to know almost every detail of our characters’ lives, quirks, etc. As readers, anything that doesn’t move the action along or give us critical information becomes fluff.

    I’ve found I have a bad habit of using the word “clearly.” If something is that obvious, why do I have to tell the reader?

    Another quick cut is the word “that.” On edit, I find it’s unnecessary about 98% of the times I use it in draft.

    I found it a useful exercise to write a couple of short stories and practice editing on them. I figured if I could cut a 3,500 word short down to 2,000 words I would be able to trim the fat out of a novel.

    • Yes–“clearly” is one of my demons, too. I’m glad to say, though, that at least I’ve gotten to the point where my fingies just won’t type “very” without triggering the “you’re being stupid” area in my brain. But that takes practice.

      “That,” speaking of, is an interesting case. I’ve gone back and forth several times recently on a single instance of the word. You’re correct in saying that often it’s completely unnecessary, but sometimes I find myself just flat liking the way the sentence flows better with it in.

      • Janet says:

        “That” is why I allow myself to use “that” 2% of the time.

        My fingers still insist on typing “very” and his sister, “quite,” sometimes, but they rarely get past me on edit.

      • Mmm Hmm, those fluff words just connect the pipe sometimes.

  71. Pretty much the same. Sometimes I also have useless scenes which can be cut, or paragraphs that are reiterating something that was already said.

  72. carol brill says:

    Recently I hired a professional editor who gave me the opposite feedback-to go back and add more descriptive adverbs and adjectives especially in dialogue tags. Her quote, “MS has almost ZERO fat”
    (just realized as I wrote that, the MS narrator has anorexia, and she needs some fat too 🙂

  73. jeffo says:

    My secret for reducing word count: Be honest.

    When reading over the manuscript, be honest with yourself. I had several scenes in mine I loved – I loved what happened, the dynamic between characters, the writing, whatever – but when I re-read them, I knew they just didn’t belong. What surprised me was how easy they were to cut – it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.

  74. marion says:

    I thought that maybe I should perhaps comment on your blog post anyway, it seemed.
    All those tentative words ruin things!
    A useful post, as usual, Rachelle.

    • carol brill says:

      Marion, you post reminds me of a real reject letter from an agent trying to get his point across that my MS was overwritten 🙂

    • Yes exactly Marion, you should write that right at the beginning of chapter two, but you can also cut more if the main character dies at the end of chapter one and does not fall in love with a shark, a pebble, or a policeman.
      (Sorry, watched “OK…Not This” off your blog :-D)

    • Marion, I had to figure out what Mr Casselman was talking about. AHAHAHA!! Hilarious!
      Egypt? COOL!

      • marion says:

        PJ, you read my blog? I’m stunned! I didn’t think anyone was reading it!
        I’d better hurry up and do a blog post then. Actually (OK, cross out that word Actually) I was thinking of posting Rachelle’s latest guest post–how lazy is that!

  75. Thank you for the advice, Rachelle! I will be revising three books when I’m done with the current writing and I’ll keep an eye out for the words in your list.

    While I’ve not needed to shorten my books, I have had to shorten a hundred sermons. The key to that is asking the question: Will keeping this add or subtract to the flow of thought? Sometimes, it hurts because the joke was really funny or the illustration was a tear jerker. Yet a cut can often mean the difference between “a timely powerful message” and “a good sermon (just glad it’s over!).”
    John Stott said “every sermon should feel like it’s twenty minutes.” Perhaps every novel should feel like a “weekend read?”

  76. Zillah says:

    A lot of helpful advice here, Rachelle, but I have heard of someone telling an author that an adverb should only be used about once in every four pages, which is absurd. They should be used when necessary for communication.

    And, I don’t understand why the poor old gerund (an “ing” word) is so frowned upon.

    And another thing – the mere use of “was” doesn’t indicate passive voice. It can indicate an ongoing action e.g.”He was walking to the shops when the dog bit him.” If it is changed to say “He walked to the shops and the dog bit him” it doesn’t mean the same thing at all.

    Lots of your tips are great, but I am troubled when some authors make blanket rules about some of them.

    • To be fair, Rachelle didn’t make any blanket rules. She gave us a list of things to look for to consider cutting. You and she are both correct. Adverbs and the perfect tenses are both in the language for a reason, but they’re also both overused.

      • Zillah says:

        I agree, Stephen, but I’ve just had a post from an author who has actually revised the first chapter of her ms and removed all the “ly” and “ing” words – because she was told she shouldn’t use them. It’s that kind of blind adherence to “rules” regardless of whether or not the substitution is warranted which I find really distressing. And she’ll do that now for her whole manuscript.

        • Heh–I’ve supposed there are writers like that, but I’m sad you’ve actually run into someone. I, personally, read that other Stephen King’s book on writing, got to the passage decimating adverbs, and ran to my bookcase to see how the master told stories without one of the main parts of speech. First page I flipped to, first paragraph, had a little -ly weed sprouting right in it.

          First myth of writing: rules are more important than storytelling. 🙂

        • Josh C. says:

          I think the point here is that beginners DO have a strict set of rules to adhere to. I’m a newbie writer, but let me give you an example I can relate to from experience. Music is a craft, like writing. When I was beginning to learn to play drums as a kid, there were fundamentals and rudiments I had to learn first, never deviated from them until they were as involuntary as my heartbeat. As my play improved and I understood that drumming wasn’t just banging away on a drum head (like writing isn’t just banging away on a keyboard), I began to develop my own style of play and even challenge some of the rules. The rules don’t always apply, but it takes time, experience, and wisdom to understand the difference.

        • Mary says:

          Zillah, I have to wonder if this writer showed her “beginner” status by thinking that a mentor said to take out ALL “ly” and “ing” words. Perhaps there was simply too many of those like Rachelle has listed. If not the case, that mentor was certainly wrong. It is the same principal as using the same word too many times in the same sentence, beginning too many sentences and even paragraphs with the same word. While that is not a good thing to do there are no “rules” about it and times when only that same word will do. And of course, there are also occasions when the deliberate use of the same word can be used for emphasis, increased emotion, tension etc.

    • Rachelle says:

      Zillah, “blind adherence to rules˝ is a bigger problem than I can fix here (although I have tried). Taking one person’s advice as gospel without thinking it through and checking other sources indicates an issue with that person, I think, not neccessarily a problem with the advice. My humble opinion.

      Also, you,ll notice on this blog I don’t ever use language like “you must ALWAYS do this” or “you must NEVER” – I typically make suggestions.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Zillah says:

        I know you don’t, and didn’t lay down the law on these things Rochelle. And I hope I didn’t offend you by what I said. I do feel so strongly about it. But, I am happy and relieved to be able to report that the author who had gone ahead and removed all her ing and ly words has checked with a mentor who put her straight, and she is now reversing that process :-). As you say, we should check out all these things for ourselves.

  77. This is great advice. I’ve been going through a fantasy manuscript that I thought was done, but I’m finding that a total rewrite has allowed me to cut a lot of descriptions that can be told more through the actions of the characters. I turned the first 5000 words into 3000, and it felt great!

  78. Kara I says:

    I go back and ask myself in every chapter what the point of the scene is.

    I often find that while a scene is sometimes well written and I’m taken with the witty dialogue and fabulous prose it doesn’t actually move the story on.

    If I can’t find a way for it to advance the plot it’s got to go.

  79. Sana Quijada says:

    For the first t, I’m not crying over spilled words :). Great post. Thx

  80. Bonnee says:

    I’m in the process of reading through my manuscript and cutting out whole sentences that I decide are unnecessary. The original draft was just over 80,000 words and the draft I am doing this to now was just over 77,000, so I’m just hoping I don’t end up making the manuscript TOO short. I’ve heard in places that below 60,000 is too short. The advice you’ve given here is good to go by, this is the sort of stuff I’ve been cutting out of my manuscript.

  81. I added this post to my iPad’s home screen to have it handy. Thank you for posting. Enjoy the rest of your week!

  82. I looked through my manuscripts and realized that I have too many passages that described the characters’ thoughts and feelings, so I’m going to have to cute some of them out. I always end up getting carried away and writing too much, but on the other hand I realized that I need more action in the story and less description. So thanks for the advice!

  83. Ross Lampert says:

    Here’s a little trick I use: when I have a paragraph with a sentence that trickles a word or two over onto the final line, I look for ways to reword something in the paragraph to eliminate that fractional line. That tightens the writing and, if done enough times within a chapter, might even eliminate an entire page from the manuscript.

  84. Great advice! Eliminating characters or sub plots that weigh down the story, or don’t support it, is another way to cut word count. I just erased two minor characters in my WIP and don’t even miss them! 🙂

  85. I went through a recent spell where I avoided my ms because I knew I needed to maim her. 9k words down, it’s better than it was. And I didn’t even hyperventilate in the process.

  86. Alisha says:

    Very helpful! Cutting the word count right now, and this helps a ton. Thanks!

  87. JulieS says:

    One way you can also decrease the word count is to combine two or more words into one word e.g. very big = enormous; every day = daily.

  88. nuku says:

    I wish I had the trouble of needing to cut down on word count! The first book of my fantasy is, after adding extra description and other revisions, just over 57,000 words. 2nd book, around 88,000, and the rest around 60,000.
    If you don’t already have a post on the subject, would you terribly mind giving advice on how to flesh out your work? I feel I give too much description, only to find I gave too little…
    Anyway, thank you for your post. At the least, you helped me find some things I’d be better off editing out.

    • marion says:

      Hi, Nuku. It seems like your instinct tells you the books are right, so maybe the genre is wrong. Coult you should sell them as young adult books? I think the word counts on those are shorter. A lot of adults read young adult, anyway.

    • Esther Jones says:

      I do this as well. I’ve hardly ever needed to cut. I usually find I need to add — a lot.

      • nuku says:

        Oh, I should’ve mentioned that. I plan to make then teen, or YA books. The MC is 18, but I hope that won’t be a problem. I can’t change his age, or the ages of those around him, because the knowledge and experience they hold wouldn’t be believable otherwise.
        I’m in my 20’s, so I know adults read YA! (^O^)
        As for the word count for YA fantasy, everything I’ve looked at told me I needed 75,000 words at least. And books by my favourite Christian Fantasy author, who writes YA, has his books written in the 400 page range.
        So, I dunno. I guess I’ll really have to work at fleshing it out some more, eh?

        Well, thank you for your comments! (^_^)

        • If it is well written, then eventually, the word count will be less important. Also, you might be the one to start a new trend: shorter YA-ish books. Some day we all might strive to write as succinctly as you!

          • nuku says:

            Ooh! That would be nice! I can see it now!-But I won’t bore you with the details of my daydream. (^_^)
            Thanks, though. You’ve given me some thing to push me forward. Worrying about word count has been making my muse shake her head and sigh, telling me that’s all that matters.
            But, for now, I’ll throw word count out the window and just strive to make my books good! Wahoo! (clasps hands in anticipation.) I can’t wait to get restarted! (Don’t you just LOVE writing?)

  89. stephen says:

    thank you for your well placed advice. for people like me who truly are weak in writing, and business, (and life) your website is “literally” a God-send! thank you!

    • Alan Kurland says:

      Stephen, why do you cut yourself down so much? A truly weak person would never even try to write. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. When I started to write my novel about WWII over three years ago, I thought it would be easy. I had the plot down solid, the characters, the research etc. No sweat. Now, many revisions and much pain later, it’s finally ready to go to an agent.

      So, never cut yourself down, there are plenty of others who’ll do it for you.
      Youre a winner!

      • stephen says:

        well i don’t feel like a winner, i have not “won” in my life, except for my salvation, but i anticipate a season change, and winning would be a welcomed new friend. as for writing, i know have a gift, but currently i am not a writer, and except for my current divinely inspired project, i will most likely limit my prose to poetry, and music. maybe after maturity weighs more heavily upon me, we shall see, but for now, just one day at a time! but thank you for your encouragement, bless you!

        • Stephen, it takes courage to put your words into a public forum. As for your writing, by merely writing your thoughts, ideas and feelings, you *are* a writer. Stick around, this is a great place to learn and grow. And find tons of encouragement. Now, go look in the mirror and tell yourself 5 nice things.

        • Dude…. First–what Jennifer said is correct. You’ve written here, ergo you’re a writer. Get over the mythos with which people surround that word, and just go with it. Rejoice in what you’ve done so far.

          More generally–ask any three or four people whom you consider successful whether or not they’ve “won” at life. Odds are they’ll say no. I haven’t, despite having a fancy title in my day job that makes people go “ooh” and being a published author. Accept yourself and accept your past for what they are, and decide what you want to accomplish next. Then make sure you do something today, big or small, to move toward that goal. Then, tomorrow, celebrate what you accomplished today and do something else toward your goal. Do it for thirty days and you’ll build a habit. Do it for a few years and you’ll accomplish more than you think is even possible.


Site by Author Media © Rachelle Gardner.