Cut Thousands of Words Without Shedding a Tear

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

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 the need arises to shorten a manuscript. 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?

cutting snowflakesMost writers can significantly shorten their manuscripts simply by eliminating extraneous adverbs, adjectives, gerunds, and passive verbs, i.e. things you don’t need anyway.

(For example, in the previous sentence, I’d cut the words “simply” and “anyway,” and I might even cut “significantly.” The writing is cleaner and I’m down by three words.)

If you cut 12 words per page in a 350-page manuscript, you’ve already shortened it by 4,200 (unnecessary) words. Easy peasy.

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.
→ Redundancy in words or ideas. Don’t say something twice that the reader only needs once.
→ 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.
→ Passages that use a lot of words to “tell” the reader something that should be “shown”
→ Unnecessary backstory.

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

about, actually, 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, that, 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?



Cut Thousands of Words Without Shedding a Tear. Click to Tweet.

Cutting just 12 words per page reduces the word count of a 350-page MS by 4,200 words. Click to Tweet.

Need to reduce your word count? Here’s a painless way to lose a few thousand. Click to Tweet.



77 Responses

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  1. Melissa says:

    I made up a bigger list of “weasel words” and set up a macro in word so you could find these type of words and highlight the whole word list with one click of a button (macro set-up tutorial link in the post).

    Also words that indicate you might be using shallow POV instead of deep POV.

    But I’m currently over word count with the new MS after doing all that. Sigh. But at least it isn’t MEGA over word count! 🙂

  2. I’m lucky – I spent a couple of decades writing for academic journals, where a 10k word count was strictly enforced.

    My method for reducing unneeded verbiage is more systemic than specific. I ‘time’ movies that I think are well-made, and compare a ‘felt time’ estimate for specific scenes against an actual clock.

    Turns out I always overestimate the time that scenes take, and this has taught me to tauten my own storytelling to achieve the pace I need. (“Taught me to tauten..? Ugh!)

    Additionally, some DVDs include really good director’s commentaries, that describe scenes and approaches that seemed good at the beginning, but were later cut for pacing. JJ Abrams’ commentary on the 2009 “Star Trek” is a particularly good example.

    Yes, I’m a Trekkie. The secret’s out…

  3. Keli Gwyn posted an excellent “weasel word” list on her blog a few years ago. I bookmarked it and use it for reference to find and highlight all the offending words so I could decide on a case by case basis which ones stayed and which ones went. (Works great on exclamation points too.)
    One thing I wish I hadn’t done: put much time into micro-level wordsmithing scenes that later ended up chopped, moved, drastically rewritten, etc…. The exercise was valuable, of course, but I won’t venture to guess how much re-work I created by doing it in the wrong order. Live and learn!

    • Hi Brandy! 🙂 Seeing you here makes me miss the ACFW conference. They should have two each year. But I digress…. Great suggestion to make sure of the scenes first before you begin cutting words.

  4. Practice, practice, practice! I’m launching my new website, and my goal is a daily post of less than 100 words. Sometimes I delete more words than I keep.

    • Wow, Shirlee. Only 100 words? I don’t tend to overwrite in my fiction but I do on my blog. My posts are usually 500 to 700 words. I’m sure my readers would appreciate a bit of editing. Thanks for the additional application of Rachelle’s excellent post.

  5. Anne Love says:

    Just the post I needed today. 🙂

  6. Cathy West says:

    Extraordinary. I knew you were a mind reader. I was searching for a similar post this week, couldn’t find it. BAM. Thanks, Rachelle! Exactly what I was looking for at precisely the right time.

  7. Wendy Jones says:

    This advice came just at the right time. I’m busy editing. Thank you

  8. I was going to think about reading this quickly, then I realized as a child I had a lot of things that I realized were bothering me that quickly made me want to do stuff quickly to make shortening my storytelling a really,really interestingly cool thing to do, but I can not do it quickly because I am not good, really, at shortening things quickly.

    And now, for the long version of that statement…


    Read your MS like you have to do a minute on the treadmill for each extraneous word. THAT will shorten things up, real fast!

  9. What is the usual word count expected for a manuscript? I wrote my book, self-edited, and then my editor pounced and cut it down all the more. My concern? She’d editor of a big newspaper and her world revolves around 800 word Op-Ed’s…I’m thinking my manuscript will become a pamphlet, if she keeps going at the current clip. Can proper editing be a meeting mid-way…her decidedly-clipped version and my perhaps overblown one?

  10. Sue Harrison says:

    I still have so much to learn about tightening a manuscript. Thanks for these great tips, Rachelle!

  11. Jeanne T says:

    These are fabulous tips, Rachelle. And I’m definitely going to be using your list in my revisions. 🙂 And I’m always ups for a list of words.

    I’m finding that in my rough draft, I gave a lot of intro into each scene. So, as I’m revising my plan is to cut words or tie a few in and get into action faster.

    A couple of my weasel words are: “back” and “that.” I use it. A lot. Most of the time, I don’t need these words. Sometimes, I can find more descriptive, and succinct ways to bring out showing rather than telling. Words like saw, heard, felt, smelled can often be changed with slight sentence structure changes and with more descriptive words.

  12. Becky Jacoby says:

    Understood. But what if you have the opposite problem? What if you need to expand to a higher wordcount because you write too succinctly?

    • Well that is a whole different question, isn’t it? Whereas “tightening” is often needed because of the writing itself, having too few words is probably more an issue of CONTENT. If you’re writing fiction, then you need more story. With nonfiction, you need more material. Be careful not to “bloat” your manuscript with filler.

  13. Thanks for the post, Rachelle. Part of my process is referring to my library of writing books, where I’ve dog-eared pages on editing, and highlighted the most helpful steps. It always reminds me of issues to address. (I highly recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing.) I also paste as much of the ms. as possible into a software tool that reads the text to me aloud. I find that listening to an electronic voice read my words without the coloring of my own understanding of the passage points out problems with sentence construction and word choice.

  14. Camille Eide says:

    Good point about macro smithing on the front end, Brandy. I am stronger in word smithing than in storytelling by nature and need this reminder to throw down the story before tinkering with lovely wording. Less babies to get attached to that way. It’s hard to blow through the story without micro smithing… I am learning how to do that better now. We smithys want to refine the feel and create reader reward, but that can come later. We must promise ourselves we can do that later.

    Letting go is hard when your confidence in your ability and instincts isn’t high, I’ve found. I used to be afraid to cut sections or whole scenes, not out of pride in them, but out of fear that I will NEVER be able to write a piece like that again. With time, practice, and perseverance, if we continue to hone our craft and above all keep reading, we train our instinct. I believe I’ve finally trained mine enough and have grown in confidence enough as a writer than I can more easily let those passages go because I realize there is more where that came from.

    Good reminder, Rachelle! Always needed.

  15. Sarah Thomas says:

    I just plugged my current MS into–it makes a lovely word picture with the words used most often shown largest. My main characters name’s are huge (as they should be) but there are a few others that give me pause. “Like” and “just” are showing up in much too large a font. “Thought” and “felt” are a bit smaller, but still too big. LOVE this tool. It shows me which weasel words I’m guilty of in a particular piece of writing.

  16. Lori Benton says:

    I am engaged in this very thing right now, during my line edits, over-writer that I am. Love to see those words falling away. It’s almost as fulfilling as writing them in the first place.

    Ok, not really, but there is a satisfaction in knowing I’m strengthening the story.

  17. Julia Tomiak says:

    This comes at the perfect time for me too! I’m a few thousand over and trying to think of scenes to delete- your comment about 12 words a page makes an outstanding point. Thanks!

  18. Sondra Kraak says:

    Thanks for the practical post. Some of these ideas I’d thought of, and others I hadn’t. I’m going to post this by my computer to check myself when I want to throw in an extra adjective.

  19. Neil Larkins says:

    Great lessons today, everyone. A quick reminder of what I learned from White-Strunk. Thanks.

  20. My secrets for reducing word count include keeping it in mind when I write comments. I keep a file of ways to say things and tweet a daily #writetip. @barbaramcdwhitt

  21. A request – off topic. Hope it’s not out of line.

    Could you guys say a prayer for my wife’s family? My mother-in-law is being taken off life support today. Hard thing for everyone.

    Thanks, from the heart. She was kind of the only real mom I ever knew, as well.

  22. Another tip that works for me is to find paragraphs where the last line is just a few words and then try to edit the paragraph down to get rid of that last little line. Sometimes in a later draft I can’t because it’s already been edited down, but in earlier drafts this works well–and is especially helpful when entering contests!

  23. Emily Rogers says:

    When I do revisions I watch for overused words–my worst ones are just, still, was, and looked–and I also try to see if what I’m saying actually matters. Am I explaining something no one cares about? Cut it. Am I throwing in a scene because I needed to hit a word count that day and the plot twist I created was pointless? Cut it. I discovered my most recent manuscript was a bit longer than necessary for my genre, and I ended up cutting 15k words. It’s so much the better for it!

    • Elissa says:

      Explaining something that no one cares about– you caught me, Emily. It helps me to remember that a sentence or paragraph that I might agonize over for minutes (hours?) goes through the reader’s brain in a moment. Write what the reader needs to know– that’s my mantra when editing.

  24. Katya says:

    Wow, this is good! I’m bookmarking it.

  25. A couple weeks ago wrote a 3,500 word article that had a 750 word count limit. Once I cut it down to size, I felt like it didn’t say anything. The editor said it was my best article yet. The only person who knows what’s been cut is me. I find repeating the same thought is often my problem. If I let the piece sit for a couple days and come back to it, I see those redundancies.

  26. Wonderful help. A trick up my sleeve is wishful thinking. But editing my work a thousand times to tighten it is the norm.

    (How did I do here?! Ha! It takes thinking.)

    Thank you!

  27. I’m right there now, so these tips should help. I usually start with unnecessary words. I don’t edit as I go, so words like “just” and “that” often crop up as I write.

  28. Preslaysa says:

    This is ‘just’ (<—weasel word!) what I need right now. Thanks for posting.

  29. Stephanie says:

    I’m agonizing over cutting 15,000 words, and I stumble upon this. So incredibly helpful!! Thank you.

  30. Thank you all for the prayers and kind thoughts. It’s done now.

    Would that I had met her sooner, that I may have loved her longer.

  31. Tracy says:

    Ouch, that hurt. Ouch, that hurt. I know we’re discussing word count, but it bears repeating. Thanks. Very helpful.

  32. Very helpful post. Thank you!

    My two best tricks:

    First, step away for as long as possible. After a week (or much better a month) a lot of problems and padding are clearly visible. Much of my extra verbiage is the emotion of the moment, not the content.

    Second, when I suspect a sentence, paragraph or section needs to be cut I don’t delete it. I paste it into a “flotsam and jetsam” file where I tell myself I can always find it again. Far less painful.

  33. Thanks Rachelle: NOW I DON’T FEEL SO FOOLISH.

    I spent 8 hours (yesterday) removing these five (words) from my (60,000 word) MS.

    . . . was. . . that . . . and then , , , began . . . in . . .

    It was amazing!- It did make my story more readable – interesting & fun.
    Even my dog DiNozzo agreed.

  34. HG Ferguson says:

    Let’s see now. No adverbs, adjectives, “passives” [was + ing is not passive, it is imperfect active indicative], gerunds….what’s left? See Jane run. See her pick up the ball. In the zeal to cut let us not gut. And for the record, my editor made me add an entire chapter, not reduce the word count. Weeding out wordiness is a desirable goal and always necessary. But total destruction of English literary style is not.

  35. Kathy Wheeler says:

    Thanks for the great tools and resources. The explanation of deep and shallow POV was invaluable. Now I need to fix my problem – not enough words…

  36. Natalie Monk says:

    Thanks for the lists, Rachelle. I’m bookmarking this page.

    To tighten writing, I ask myself, “How would I say it if texting?” Not including the abbreviations and smileys, of course, but the high-concept quality helps.

  37. Mark Kennard says:

    Actually, I almost, like, thought about my manuscript practically being approximately close to a thousand words too long, so then I kind of basically somehow sort of nearly cut out a few words, but I think that if I did it would somehow look suddenly too short and that would truly and utterly ruin the story…somewhat.

  38. Thanks, Rachelle! This is a great resource and encouragement! My wife and I started cutting down my epic fantasy manuscript, just too long in its word count. Trimming a bit off the top, I guess you could say. Love the checklist.

  39. Laura Naiser says:

    I’m new at this process and these tips will help trim my posts! Thank you.

  40. Mark Hoult says:

    Very practical advice – thank you Rachelle. I’m currently trying to get a manuscript down from 149,000 to 110,000 and will use some of the techniques you suggest.