Tighten Up Your Manuscript!

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

Never fear. 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.

This is an encore presentation of a previous post.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  12. Courtney Sikora on June 17, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    I know this is an old post, but it still applies. I agree with everything said here and stole some of it for my own blog. Mwah hah hah hah!

    Oh, don’t worry, I credited you.


  13. Anonymous on September 11, 2009 at 9:06 PM

    >Get over yourself, Rachelle. Seriously.

  14. Janine on September 9, 2009 at 9:17 PM

    >A really handy tool for finding all those problem words that Rachelle identified is the AutoCrit Editing Wizard.

    It indentifies a whole bunch of writing problems and it makes editing a LOT easier.

  15. Rachelle on September 6, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    >Rob, it's standard nowadays to use the actual word count. No more formulas. Just let Word give you a word count.

  16. Eric J. Krause on September 6, 2009 at 2:32 PM

    I'd love to hear the answer to Rob Roush's question, too. I've always been a Courier New submitter, but the word count formula I use likely won't work with Times New Roman. Are we getting to the point where we simply use the word processor's word count function when submitting?

  17. Rob Roush on September 3, 2009 at 6:26 AM


    I know it's been a couple weeks since you posted this, but I was wondering: With the push to format manuscripts using Times New Roman which results in fewer pages in the manuscript, do you have a suggested technique for determining word count? I appologize if you've addressed this somewhere on your blog. I searched but couldn't find it.


  18. Kimberley Payne on August 26, 2009 at 8:28 PM

    >One of the best books I've read on this topic is a book I picked up in 1985 for $1.85 called, "How to take the FOG out of writing" by Robert Gunning and Douglas Mueller

  19. Susan on August 22, 2009 at 3:16 AM

    >I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  20. Genny on August 18, 2009 at 9:49 PM

    >This is a great list of tips. I am guilty of using "just" too much, but it helps to be aware of it. Thanks so much for the reminder to always focus on making my manuscript as tight as it can be.

  21. Beth on August 18, 2009 at 6:19 PM

    >I'm excited to try this tomorrow and the timing couldn't be better. I'm in serious editing mode on my debut novel right now (or should be, rather).

    Thanks for all the unnecessary words we should delete, as well as the other tips. I'm printing this out!

    P.S. I tend to be wordy and constantly write over 90,000 words so this should help.

  22. Anonymous on August 18, 2009 at 5:14 PM

    >Actually, it's only a gerund if it serves as a noun, eg "I love swimming." If it's a verb (eg "I am swimming") then it it is a present participle.

    If it's an adjective (eg "That is a swimming cat") then its also a participle, or verbal adjective.

  23. Jinx on August 18, 2009 at 3:21 PM

    >Yes, even after I make major cuts, I can always find more. ha ha

    Great post. Thanks!

  24. Jenny on August 18, 2009 at 2:35 PM

    >I actually love reducing my (and others) word count. Granted, I come from the corporate communications world where I like nothing more than taking a long, poorly written memo from an executive and reducing it to less than half its size. In the end, it says so much more! I get satisfaction out of making every word count.

  25. Eric J. Krause on August 18, 2009 at 2:05 PM

    >Excellent list! Thanks for posting this. I'm always looking for ways to help me revise my work, so I've bookmarked this post to help me along. I never really thought about how just 10 words cut per page adds up, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks again!

  26. Terri Nixon on August 18, 2009 at 9:15 AM

    >Always worth checking the MS for stuff like that, thanks! I'd add: up and down to the list. My characters are learning not to look up, look down, stand up, sit down, fall down (obviously; that just hurts) and climb up stairs. It's tough, but they're getting there …

  27. Ashley on August 17, 2009 at 11:56 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for the helpful info!

  28. R. K. Mortenson on August 17, 2009 at 11:49 PM

    >I love me some adverbs. I really, totally do. Except "suddenly." I take that out and put in "in a flash." Really spices things up. Or go with Lightning McQueen's "Kerchow!" As in: "Kerchow! He appeared in the doorway." Right there, an editor's dream. 🙂

  29. coffeelvnmom on August 17, 2009 at 11:15 PM

    >Okay…help… where in the world IS the search and replace option? =(

  30. Jennifer Madsen on August 17, 2009 at 11:09 PM

    >This blog speaks to my heart today! This is exactly the phase of editing I am in. Around my house we jokingly call it "dealing with the and/but/that situation." Thanks for the repost!

    Jennifer Madsen

  31. Beth on August 17, 2009 at 11:05 PM

    >This is (adverb alert!) tremendously helpful, thank you so much! 🙂

  32. coffeelvnmom on August 17, 2009 at 10:32 PM

    >Awesome list. And I thought I was done editing for a bit… guess I'm off for one more stab at it!

  33. WhisperingWriter on August 17, 2009 at 10:26 PM

    >Oops, I know my novel has a bunch of those words you listed. I am definately going to clean it up as soon as I finish it.

  34. Liana Brooks on August 17, 2009 at 8:24 PM

    >This is why edit -> find is my best friend while editing. I'm guilty of abusing all those words.

  35. Jill on August 17, 2009 at 8:24 PM

    >Thanks for the list–I've been looking for something like this!

  36. Marla Taviano on August 17, 2009 at 7:37 PM

    >I probably left this same comment the last time you posted this, but I cut 40,000 words out of my first book. (are you kidding me??)

  37. Rachel on August 17, 2009 at 6:59 PM

    >I keep a blog of posts that are 250 words or less. No matter how streamlined I try to begin, I almost never run out of things to cut out…

  38. DebraLSchubert on August 17, 2009 at 6:44 PM

    >After Janet Reid suggested a 'that-ectomy' it got me thinking about all the other overused and unnecessary words. It's great seeing your ms tighten up as you get rid of these crutches. Thanks so much for this post!

  39. Katie Ganshert on August 17, 2009 at 5:45 PM

    >What an awesome list! Thanks, RAchelle! I also find that when I'm really close to my writing (say in the middle of the WIP or right after I finish), I'm very hesitant to cut anything. But if I leave it alone for a longer period of time, I'm more removed and much more willing to delete stuff.

  40. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on August 17, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    >Hi Rachelle!

    I want to add my favorite, completely unnecessary word: "utilize." I do not know why the word "use" got so a bad reputation that it was replaced by "utilized," but I have it at the top of my "do not utilize" word list.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

    Be blessed!


  41. Betsy Ashton on August 17, 2009 at 2:24 PM

    >I was shocked when I searched for "very," "every*" (-thing, -one, -body, etc.) and "ly."

    By paying close attention to the search results, I knocked off nearly 1,000 extraneous or imprecise words.

    It did make the MS tighter and read better. Thanks for the advise.

  42. Rebekah on August 17, 2009 at 2:11 PM

    >As a writing teacher I have to Agree! Another word to add to the edit list is REALLY. I happen to hate that word with much passion….I mean I really hate that word! Ha!

    Also, editing is my favorite part of the writing process. Most people don't realize this until they do honest editing. This is when the writing gets good. It is like eating, and finally tasting/noticing all the flavors.

  43. Marilynn Byerly on August 17, 2009 at 1:53 PM

    >As a professional writer and a writing teacher, I'd say that anyone who hasn't already tightened their manuscript won't have some editor asking them to tighten it.

    Instead, they'd get a form rejection letter because they don't have publishable craft.

    Once the editor has it, length changes are more likely to involve lengthening, shortening, or deleting subplots and minor characters.

  44. Brooke C on August 17, 2009 at 1:30 PM

    >I was really just kind of almost utterly ready to eventually submit my practically finished, basically loose MS.
    Just then, your post suddenly appeared in its supremely eloquent glory, simply shining, sort of, through the heavy, gray, thickly-scented mist. Finally, I was utterly close to the answer!

    Thanks for the tips. 😉

  45. Jungle Mom on August 17, 2009 at 1:18 PM

    >More work for me, because, actually, those are basically, like, just the kind of words that practically make up approximately close to 50% of my manuscript.
    I'll be busy for a year or so! Thank you for another post with great advice!

  46. Heart2Heart on August 17, 2009 at 1:14 PM


    Once again, great tips on how to reduce unnecessary words. I think too often we think we need to cut the meat out of our story but doing something like this, much easier.

    Love and Hugs ~ Kat

  47. Anonymous on August 17, 2009 at 1:08 PM

    >I have the opposite problem. I write middle grade and all of my work comes in between 25,000 and 30,000 words. I don't plan it this way but it always happens! Any advice on fattening things up?

  48. FictionGroupie on August 17, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    >Great information! I spent last week murdering many an -ly adverb in revising, so this adds more things to look out for as I go. Thanks!

  49. Sarah on August 17, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    >Thanks for the post! It will help me a lot. I am guilty of unknowingly using unnecessary words. 🙂

  50. Eric on August 17, 2009 at 12:24 PM

    >Wow, some of these I knew about but some I didn't. Thanks for providing such a complete list. Great post, as always.

  51. Crystal on August 17, 2009 at 12:14 PM

    >Thanks for this post, Rachelle! It will definitely be helpful in revisions. I'm posting a link to this from my blog. I think it's good for all aspiring writers to review these things.

    Greatly appreciated! 🙂

  52. Catherine West on August 17, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    >Thanks for the reminder. Very timely as I am knee-deep in revisions now…yes, I AM. Really. :0) If only I had a printer at the cottage…I suppose I could write out your post by hand…

  53. Liberty Speidel on August 17, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    >Definitely needed that since I'm in edit mode. Thanks for sharing!

  54. Joylene Nowell Butler on August 17, 2009 at 10:53 AM

    >Cmmonsense is always a good thing. Thanks for the list, Rachelle. Could I have your permission to repost it on my blog in the near future?

  55. Gwen Stewart--Singer-Scribe on August 17, 2009 at 10:34 AM

    >The search option on Word is awesome! Beware search and replace though. I recently changed a character's name from Bill to Bob using that feature. Then I had characters taking bobs out of their wallets and throwing them on the tables. (heh)

  56. Arabella on August 17, 2009 at 10:26 AM

    >Most people do need to edit and weed their manuscripts (myself included). However, I don't understand the fad for so-called "tight" writing. Writing is all about style, and we've gotten so succinct in our writing that we jump into action on the first page (which is appalling), and we use series of fragment sentences instead of long, grammatical sentences. Good writing needs transitions, adverbs are fine when used properly, and passive voice is perfectly acceptable to me in the right context (it doesn't actually break any grammar rules).
    If you want to alienate me as a reader, go ahead and make certain that your writing is tight instead of descriptive, lacks transitions, throws me into the action immediately, and, to be sure, use all kinds of fragments–they're a sign of tight writing.

  57. Liz on August 17, 2009 at 10:22 AM

    >I thoroughly enjoyed this post, so helpful. My biggest problem? Unnecessary back-story. For some reason, I always feel the need to work in a character's childhood skirmish with a bully named Towanda in the middle of a romance scene. Working on this could take a lifetime. 🙂

  58. Teri D. Smith on August 17, 2009 at 10:09 AM

    >I have a "search and destroy" list on a note card with words like this. I seldom use -ly words so they're not on it, but I put weak verbs like got, put, went, etc.

    I also use a program that tells me how many times a word is used in a chapter. Nothing wrong with the word "interview" but I used it way too many times in one scene.

    I'm going to compare my list with yours now to see if there's anything else I can add to my note card.

  59. Dara on August 17, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    >My downfall is passive voice. For some reason, I default into writing that way. I've been trying to fix it though to make my writing stronger 🙂

    I've also found that "suddenly" is a word I love to use; I'm on guard for it every time when I write. Now if only I could extend that to the passive voice issue…

  60. Katie Hart - Freelance Writer on August 17, 2009 at 9:58 AM

    >Now I just need tips for making a manuscript LONGER. I tend to write very tight – I think it comes from years of writing book reviews.

  61. SM Schmidt on August 17, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    >Huzzah editing for the confused. I'm not at the stage yet to tighten up but this post is getting printed out and being pinned to the wall when that scary moment comes. I'm so guilty with a love affair of gerunds, now I have a word for it!

  62. Kelly Combs on August 17, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    >I learned a new word: gerund!

    I've been working on this in my writing, and have learned that I use the word JUST more than any human being on earth.

    I also appreciated a friend telling me that while everything I write is important to ME, the question to ask is, "Is it important to the reader?" This helps when taking out sections of a story. Sections that I might love, but that just don't impact the overall story line.

  63. Debbie on August 17, 2009 at 9:09 AM

    >Great stuff – thank you for posting this! Being a better writer – and editor – is my goal!

  64. Kat Harris on August 17, 2009 at 8:51 AM

    >One of the things I ran across a lot in some of my rough drafts were phrases like started to (verb), prepared to (verb), or began to (verb).

    I learned quickly that dropping those phrases tightens up the writing a lot. I mean, there's a place for those phrases, but I think most of the time "I ran" is cleaner than "I started to run."

    This is one of my favorite writing topics. 🙂 Thanks for the post.

  65. Patricia Raybon on August 17, 2009 at 8:41 AM

    >Great list, Rachelle. My Writing With God website offers additional tips. Your readers are invited to check it out. Thanks and blessings.

  66. CKHB on August 17, 2009 at 8:36 AM

    >Like Jessica, too high a word count is NOT my problem. But it's important to remember that these suggested edits aren't just about word count, they're about improving the narrative language. Even if my future editor wants me to add more words, I won't ever want to add words that are totally, utterly, truly, really, really unnecessary to the story.

  67. Ed Eubanks on August 17, 2009 at 8:32 AM

    >Good tips, Rachelle, as always.

    I remember reading that Mark Twain gave the following advice about editing: Twain said that a writer should replace the word "very" with the word "damn"– it brings the same sort of emphasis, and your editor will remove them all, which is what should have happened anyway!

  68. Lisa Jordan on August 17, 2009 at 8:26 AM

    >I used to suffer from RUE syndrome–resist the urge to explain. Once I realized readers were smart enough to get it, I've tightened up a lot of my writing. I still have a ways to go, but this list is very helpful! Thanks for sharing!

  69. Scott on August 17, 2009 at 8:26 AM

    >Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!

    I'm currently in the process of tightening my manuscript. I've done some of these things already, but not all of them, and was wondering how I would get my word count down to where I want it.

    Now, there's hope! Thanks again!


  70. unpublished @ psych ward #211 on August 17, 2009 at 8:11 AM

    >Whenever I read agents' and editors' blogs with tips, how-tos, dos and don'ts etc, I just get depressed and discouraged. My writing must truly suck. I might as well spare all these people in the publishing industry the pain of reading it.

    I wonder how many excellent books have failed to ever materialize because of the author's lack of confidence. And how many books have been printed when they should never even have been written, just because the author had confidence in their ability and an unbendable resolve to make their dream come true?


  71. quackingalone on August 17, 2009 at 7:53 AM

    >I recently blogged about this as I just finished an edit of my new one. It seems to me that editing is an eternal process. No matter how tight a MS is, no matter how smoothly it flows, I think I can always make it better and tighter.

    Editing is never really finished, is it?

    My blog was addressing how nice it would be if we could edit our lives to make them flow more smoothly. While we can't do that, we use our "editor's eyes" to analyze our pasts so that we don't make the same mistake in the future.

  72. RCWriterGirl on August 17, 2009 at 7:49 AM

    >Good post. Very helpful.

  73. Donna Gambale on August 17, 2009 at 7:38 AM

    >Nice post! I'm definitely putting it to use.

  74. Richard Mabry on August 17, 2009 at 7:21 AM

    >So much good advice in such a small space. I've saved the post as a Word document and filed it in my "writing tips" folder. Thanks for sharing your editing expertise with your readers (and your clients).

  75. Sharon A. Lavy on August 17, 2009 at 7:19 AM

    >I hope to take 102,000 words down to 98,000.

    I found a thread that can be condensed. Not deleted, a plot point hinges on it, but definitely condensed.

  76. Krista Phillips on August 17, 2009 at 6:50 AM

    >After ACFW conference last year, I went through my book and did a "quick" edit to tighten it up. It still needs more, I'm sure, but I took a 104k novel down to under 90k words just by tightening.

    I'm keeping that in mind when I'm writing my newest book… but I find that it's easier to go back and edit out later, and just write the story now, than it is to worry about -ly words and passive voice as I write.

    The checklist is SO very helpful!! I had a similar one but you gave me some more words to check for:-)

  77. Julie Gillies on August 17, 2009 at 6:29 AM

    >I think I was born with extra adverbs in my brain, so I appreciate your check-list, Rachelle!

  78. Sharon A. Lavy on August 17, 2009 at 6:25 AM

    >Very timely. Thanks.

  79. Joanne Sher on August 17, 2009 at 6:18 AM

    >This is EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY helpful, Rachelle. I definitely need to do this.

  80. PurpleClover on August 17, 2009 at 6:09 AM

    >Thanks. This is helpful!

  81. Jessica on August 17, 2009 at 5:56 AM

    >Thanks! Great list.

    I kind of have the problem of my manuscripts being too short. If the story pacing is good, and if the story is tight, does the publisher care if it's on the short side?
    Just curious, and this doesn't mean my manuscripts are those things. LOL! They need tightening too.

  82. jbchicoine on August 17, 2009 at 5:28 AM

    >Thanks for the succint list. It comes at the perfect time for me.

  83. Heather Sunseri on August 17, 2009 at 4:36 AM

    >That's a great list, Rachelle! It seems like the perfect checklist for when you THINK you are done editing. A "wait, there's more" kind of list. Thanks.

  84. Anonymous on August 17, 2009 at 1:06 AM

    >Wow, am I guilty of this…working on tightening my ms. now. But don't you need some of these words to smooth out the rough spots, especially for transitions and dialogue, and to emphasize certain points? Must they all disappear? Say it ain't so!