Tightening Your Writing

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:

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

Here’s a list of words to watch for and 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 much you cut, your editor will always find more.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photo-1756958/

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!


  1. […] trying to polish our writing after our drafts are finished. Rachelle Gardner has some tips for tightening your writing, and Julie Glover shares 4 easy edits that make your story flow […]

  2. Blanche Springer on September 14, 2018 at 2:53 PM

    Excellent advice. Reminds me to take another look at my manuscript.

  3. Shelli Littleton on September 14, 2018 at 6:38 AM

    Great, Rachelle. My crit group leader is a fabulous author, and she’s really helping me tighten my manuscript. Another word that’s easy to cut is “began.” She began twirling her noodles. She twirled her noodles. I eliminated some 40 yesterday. 🙂

  4. Pat Iacuzzi on September 13, 2018 at 10:43 PM

    Good thing I slice and dice at all of these points.
    Except… for lengthy “passages that describe characters’ thoughts and feelings in too much detail” (i.e. long sections of narrative). Or, unnecessary backstory.
    (Sigh) Well, there goes my characters’ internal conflicts!
    I haul back on the reins, and Internal Conflict, the buckskin horse beneath me…

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  6. Jennifer L. Griffith on March 26, 2008 at 6:40 PM

    >The above should say “writing similes without like…or turning them into metaphors.

    I hope I make sense.

  7. Jennifer L. Griffith on March 26, 2008 at 6:21 PM

    >Okay, this is a late comment on this. Between being in agony from intense pain and moments of feeling a bit sane, I’ve eliminated some unnecessary words. (pain has a way of stunting creativity…sigh…but I sure am trying.)

    Now I’m on “like.” Sometimes the way to take it out and write a better metaphor is obvious, but I can’t put my finger on “why” one’s easier to detect than the next. Can you offer up any clues to this? Is there a trick to recognizing unnecessary “like’s”? (I MANY to think about.)

    How about “abouts”?

    Thanks, Rachelle for any input.

  8. Linda Harris on March 10, 2008 at 5:22 PM

    >I know I’m a little late jumping in here, but I’m catching up from having the flu.

    Clarification about gerunds: A gerund is a verb used as a noun. Not all words ending in -ing are gerunds. Some are verbs.

  9. Christa on March 7, 2008 at 9:09 PM

    >Michael Degen, a teacher whose book on writing (Crafting Expository Argument) I use in my classes, suggests editing with what he calls “The Lard Factor”: reducing word count by 30%.

    Now, if that could just work for my thighs.

    And, Catherine, I think you should send the University of Toronto a check for NOT teaching gerunds! If I want my students ‘ eyes to glaze over l just start chanting words like, “verbals, gerunds, participles. . .”

  10. Catherine West on March 7, 2008 at 9:26 AM

    >Gerund. Sounds like a nasty boil or something.
    Do you know if it’s an American term? I’m just trying to figure out why I’ve never heard it before.
    I’m seriously not that stupid, but now I’m beginning to wonder.
    Do you think the University of Toronto would give me my money back??

  11. Melanie on March 7, 2008 at 4:49 AM

    >I’m paranoid now. Just want to point out that I cut those inches of copy from a press release, not my own copy.

    Another suggestion, look for redundancies. A former boss had conniptions when he saw “public forum” or “safe haven.” A forum is, by it’s very nature, public, and if a haven’s unsafe, it’s no longer a haven. Similar redundancies are common.

    Also, look at the narrative surrounding quotes to be sure you’re not repeating yourself, only phrasing it differently.

    I’ve been writing and editing news so long, my crit partners keep wanting more modifiers. It’s hard to switch hats.

  12. JC on March 6, 2008 at 11:52 PM

    >Gotcha. Thanks, I was freaking out as I comb through my mss adding, er, I mean cutting, words and seeing -ing words.

  13. Rachelle on March 6, 2008 at 10:28 PM

    >Gerunds are perfectly good in many cases, but you have to be careful because they can contribute to passive voice, especially when paired with “was” or “is.”

    “She shouted” is more immediate and active than “she was shouting.”

    “She ran” is stronger than “she was running.”

    It’s a judgment call, but like I said in the post, just watch for them and ask yourself if you’ve chosen the right word to accomplish your goal.

  14. JC on March 6, 2008 at 10:01 PM

    >I am confused about the gerund thing. If I have a sentence that hypothetically reads: “I see,” MC said, controlling his rage. then I need to change it to: MC controlled his rage. “I see.” Granted, one word is deleted, but isn’t the purpose of gerunds and other parts of speech to give variety to sentence structure? What about Trudging through the mire, MC discovered the hidden treasure. Does it need to be rewritten as MC trudged throug the mire and discovered the hidden treasure.? I am sorry if I sound stupid, but I have never heard of cutting gerunds. Adjectives and the other words, yes, but not gerunds.

  15. Megan DiMaria on March 6, 2008 at 7:26 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. Your suggestions are brilliant. I can say that with 100% confidence because when I was doing a final edit on my book, I took out the editing suggestion sheet you passed out at a speaking event and used it to help me trim, trim, trim.

    It’s not a walk in the park, but it was soooo worth it.

    A prisoner of hope,

  16. Katy McKenna on March 6, 2008 at 3:56 PM

    >Ha! I utterly failed at almost keeping you humble. It figures….. 🙂

    I must have thought the word was “always” because two of my biggest offenders are “always” and “never.” Not just in my writing, either. I’ve been told by those paying attention (hubby and kids) that I overuse these “extreme” words.

    Even so, I am almost glad that you always jump at the chance to never let your clients get away with anything. 🙂

    Katy McKenna http://www.fallible.com

  17. Catherine West on March 6, 2008 at 3:41 PM

    >Okay. We’ll buy that.

  18. Rachelle on March 6, 2008 at 2:41 PM

    >My CLIENTS sure like to keep me humble, don’t they?

    But Katy, the word repeated in my list is ALMOST.

    Just trying to keep everyone on their toes and see if you’re reading carefully or not.

  19. Katy McKenna on March 6, 2008 at 2:38 PM

    >What I love is that Rachelle’s list of words to trim includes twice as many uses of the word “always” as any other iffy word. I think that’s the approximate rate at which I overuse the word “always,” so I’m feeling pretty good right now. 🙂 It’s nice to be in excellent company…….

    Katy McKenna http://www.fallible.com

  20. Tiffany Stuart on March 6, 2008 at 12:54 PM

    >Love this post and dialogue. Too fun.

  21. Zoe on March 6, 2008 at 12:49 PM

    >A couple of other examples that I see in my fight against flabby copy: “as to” instead of “about” or “regarding” and constructions like “It was John who said…” instead of “John said…”

    Tighter writing is generally easier to understand and more powerful, so for what it’s worth, as one of those evil editor-types, I think it’s an uphill battle worth fighting. If I get a tightly written work, I have no problem leaving it largely as is— save me time and effort— I dare you.

  22. Anonymous on March 6, 2008 at 12:10 PM

    >I think you’d quickly find that our faux arrogance is merely a smokescreen to hide writerly insecurities. Perhaps you’ve already seen us at your local Starbucks? We’re those nervous people sipping passion tea at the little round tables, alternately staring blankly at our laptops or saying words aloud you can’t publish in the CBA while slapping at the delete key. Editors and agents need not fear running into writers like us. We never finish our novels. 😉

    But theoretically? Yes. It’s a brilliant idea. Oops…sorry. My faux arrogance slipped out again. Guess it’s time for me to stare blankly at the laptop…

    Anonymous 12:45

  23. Anonymous on March 6, 2008 at 12:00 PM

    >Anonymous 12:45 – I think your ideal is brilliant!

  24. Rachelle on March 6, 2008 at 9:31 AM

    >Kim, your comment is freakin’ brilliant! The first time I read it, I hadn’t had my coffee yet and I went “huh?” Coffee’s on board and you ROCK.

    Melanie, thanks for the link!

    Anonymous 12:45, I truly hope I never encounter a writer of your arrogance. 🙂 Our clashing would not be pretty.

    Anonymous 5:53, thanks & glad you like it!

    Rachel, yes I agree. There is nothing worse than passive voice.

    Cyndi — you and me both! I hope nobody ever tries to hold my blog posts to the same standards I apply to the books I’m editing/acquiring.

    Cathy, as always, your optimism inspires me. (You’ve been through this whole editing thing… it wasn’t that bad, was it?)

    Mary, I hadn’t seen your MA post… I’ll hop on over!

    Kathryn, that’s a great term. It’s always difficult to cut our Little Darlins.

  25. Kathryn Harris on March 6, 2008 at 9:03 AM

    >A singer/songwriter friend of mine in Nashville once told me, “You have to know when to cut your ‘Little Darlins’.”
    He was talking about knowing which musical transitions to keep and which to put aside because they cluttered the song, but I’ve tried to apply that to my creative writing.
    Even though I loved my ‘Little Darlins’, I cut scenes, phrases and even characters from my manuscript after receiving this advice.

  26. Mary DeMuth on March 6, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    >I wrote about spare writing this week at The Master’s Artist. (http://aratus.typepad.com/tma/2008/03/write-nekkid.html) The interesting thing? I put two examples there of older writing (more flowery) and my newest writing (lean and mean). And pretty much people were split about which one they preferred. I wonder what that means!

  27. Catherine West on March 6, 2008 at 8:30 AM

    >”Try to have fun with it.”
    Yeah. Is that what you tell people going in for a root canal too??
    Actually, it’s not so painful once you get used to the idea. I do know some authors who love the editing process. I can’t say I’m one of them. Reading your post just gave me a migraine. I’m tempted to rush back to my manuscript and read through it again…but I’m not gonna. I will however be printing out this list to save for future reference. I was aware of most of this stuff, so that’s the good news. Bad news is I’ve never heard the word ‘gerund’ before, and I call myself an English Major…

  28. Cyndi Lewis on March 6, 2008 at 8:21 AM

    >Blogging has helped me realize, how often I write unnecessary words. I blog how I speak. I realize now, I should speak less and listen more.

  29. Rachel Starr Thomson on March 6, 2008 at 8:09 AM

    >Great post! I have a massive volunteer editing project coming up (helping a whole group of friends whip their novels into shape), and I think I’ll pass the link to this along to the group.

    Oh, and as someone who marks hundreds of creative writing papers every week, may I suggest that writers look for every instance of “There is” (or there are, was, were) and see if there’s a better way to write the sentence?

  30. Anonymous on March 6, 2008 at 7:53 AM

    >I enjoy this blog site so much. You guys are sooo funny and make me laugh. Thanks Rachelle and bloggers it is wonderful to be apart of such a upbeat and sassy group and learn the ropes as well. Awesome, wonderful, motivating, inspiring, entertaining, helpful,….oh this was about tightening your writing….scratch that :).


  31. Anonymous on March 6, 2008 at 2:45 AM

    >Editors will always find more to cut? Even if it’s a lean book? Hmm…I know what I’ll do. I’ll write tight, I’ll trim until there’s nothing but brilliance left on the page…then…I’ll add back a few pounds of fat so the editor will have something to do. If my devious plan works, the editor will trim only the added fat, then smile a satisfied smile and put down the red pen. I’ll end up with the very book I wanted all along!

    Wait…did I just say that out loud? I hope there aren’t any editors listening…

  32. Melanie on March 6, 2008 at 2:29 AM

    >Kim, you are cruel.

    I know this site isn’t for journalists, but there’s a free course at NewsU.org called “Get Me Rewrite” that offers tips on cleaning, cutting copy and includes diagnostic tools.

    Today, I cut four inches of copy to make an article fit, and most of it was one modifier at a time.

  33. Kim Kasch on March 6, 2008 at 1:19 AM

    >A Cutting Exercise: About How to Reduce Paper Weight and Word Count

    I really try to simply eliminate extraneous flab in all my stories. But, this can truly be more of a mental workout than even the most serious wannabe writers can take.

    Finally, I’ve eventually, made up my mind to Just-do-it – well…sort of. I was close to accomplishing this goal – almost – when it occurred to me that it’s too difficult.

    But somehow, suddenly, I realized my very first line was practically all about being utterly cursed. And, well…actually, that’s what the entire story is really focused on. And, just then, it hit me that this task seems, sort of, impossible. I mean – really – you want me to reduce my word count? And how exactly do you want me to do that?

    Besides, it appears I can’t take all the cutting, tightening, and slicing of flab.

    Suddenly, I’m feeling like I am basically at the gym rather than relaxing in front of my monitor, as I go through this -somewhat – difficult exercise. It appears I’m just going to be an over Weight writer.


    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.