How to tighten your manuscript

2012_April_pencilsThis was very good timing. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner just ran an interesting post entitled ‘How to tighten your manuscript‘.

I, um … blush, shuffle feet … always seem to be facing this dilemma. After pitching sessions with agents at the recent Matera Women’s Fiction festival, I need to start cutting word count for my second manuscript.

For new authors of women’s fiction, most agents and publishers are talking about a word count rage between 75,000 and 95,000 words.

What’s a verbose girl to do?

Luckily, this post came along at the right time. In addition to more substantial edits, in winnowing down word count, it also helps to:

  • Eliminate or minimize adverbs. Choose strong verbs instead.
  • Cut out those filler words. (There’s a helpful list of those pesky words that keep creeping into our writing)
  • Root out passive voice
  • Pare down dialogue to its most essential elements.

And you, writers? Do you spend lots of time editing down your word count? What are your tips and suggestions?


  1. wordfoolery on October 18, 2013 at 11:54 am

    A timely link for me as I’m doing this myself at the moment. Filler words are a killer for me. In first person I tend to write “I knew that he” instead of just “he” (filtering). I look very hard at every scene, and phrase and ask myself “do I really need this?” I’ve also heard it suggested that you remove an entire scene (backup first!) and see if the story works without it, or just with a reference to it. Good luck with the pruning!

  2. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) on October 18, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Word count is that evil thing I usually hate to talk about. For someone who also wants to get that first novel published, it seems a necessary evil. I can be rather verbose, too. My first novel is way over that recommended word count and my second one is still over, but I’m tossing it out there anyway, to see if I can slide past it.

    Fortunately, I love the editing stage. It gives me extreme satisfaction to watch that word count go down. @wordfoolery has good advice with the example of cutting down to the direct subject vs. unnecessary preamble. Also, I look at action. Are my characters walking to the kitchen, then thinking about what to do in there, then opening the refrigerator, then taking out the milk jug, then opening it, then pouring it…. well, obviously you can see that example. I cut down actions that only show necessary movement or if it will show more about a character based upon “how” she does something.

  3. Christine Adler on October 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    I just got an email about this topic yesterday: 10 Words to Cut From Your Writing. While this is a general article about writing, not particular to a manuscript, it got me thinking too. Thanks for the tips! Here’s the link:

  4. kimberlysullivan on October 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Hello ladies. Lots of great thoughts/advice here. I find revisions extremely difficult, but I agree with all your tips. Having gone through the (painful) process before, I do agree that it helps get word count down and the final version reads more smoothly. But I’d still prefer the magic wand…

  5. chillcat on October 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Ha! Magic wand! I find that editing is hard work too – less about word count than about sloppy writing that doesn’t render, cliches (!!!) and yeah, being unnecessarily wordy. I think I’ve begun to work really hard on first drafts, but the risk is you don’t step back enough from language to deal with themes and pace. So much to think of! That’s why I still prefer the energy of the short story – seems more possible to be able to keep the lesser volume under control.

  6. wordfoolery on October 22, 2013 at 12:05 am

    Quick update – I took your list of weasel words – just cut 2,200 words pretty easily. Definitely useful tool in the editing toolbox. Thanks for the tip!

  7. kimberlysullivan on October 22, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Ha! Too true, Catherine, about short stories seeming easier in this respect. I feel the same. It’s so easy to revise them and weed out unnecessary detail, wordiness, etc. I never worry that I’m creating plot holes as I do in novels. Wow, Grace! 2200 in one go. I’m going to have to use these in all my writing. Maybe one day I’ll even self-edit in draft one. *Sigh*

Leave a Comment