Revisions — Cutting Words


Last time, I talked about making a battle plan toward revisions that involved several focused passes at your manuscript.  Today, I’m going to give you some specifics about an important pass I always make sure to do — cutting out useless words.  Of course, this is merely one approach and, as is all writing advice, merely one opinion.  Mileage may vary.

Whether we like to admit it or not, word count is an important part of writing.  Too high or too low and your word count can have a severe impact on the salability of your work.  Since most of my experience comes from writing short stories, the problem for me is often a case of too many words; however, everything I’m writing about today applies to novel writing as well.  And the first point is that clear and concise are the key phrases to remember.  More importantly (in my mind, at least) is that if I’m already well within the market’s preferred word count and I can knock-off even just ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred useless words, I then have the opportunity to fill that space back up with great details, depth of character, plugging up plot holes, etc.  Or I can leave those words off, fill them in with nothing else, and just have a leaner piece of writing.  In other words, by getting rid of extraneous wordage, I can better shape the work into what I really wanted it to be in the first place.

Now, some specifics:

Prepositional phrases — First, not all prepositional phrases are bad and need to be replaced.  In fact, a well-chosen prep-phrase can add a lot of flavor to your sentences.  Also, in some instances and some genres, prep-phrases help create the proper tone — such as epic fantasy in which “the sword of the honest” may have a better ring than “the honest’s sword”.  However, often times a sentence can be re-ordered to avoid the prep-phrase, making the sentence cleaner and gaining you a word a two of free space.

Original: Derek pulled the ladle from the bowl with green spots and poured himself a delicious helping of chicken soup into his bowl.

Revised: Derek pulled the ladle from the green-spotted bowl and poured himself some delicious chicken soup. (-7 words)

Of course, context is crucial in your decision process.  I didn’t feel it was important to mention the receptacle he poured the soup into — in fact, most people will assume it was a bowl unless told otherwise.  But if it had been a key issue, then I would have to re-work the sentence differently.  Likewise, if the green-spotted bowl is not important we could rewrite it further:

Revision 2: Derek poured himself some delicious chicken soup. (-15 words)

Obviously, this last revision lacks any real beauty as far as a sentence goes but it does get across the idea clearly.  And frankly, does the reader need a beautiful sentence about pouring soup?  If the story says YES, then this is the type of extreme cut that can make the room for more valuable writing.  After all, I just gut fifteen words.  I could now write an entire sentence that tells us something about Derek or simply add to this one.

Revision 3: Derek poured himself some delicious chicken soup, but he tasted little of it — he couldn’t stop thinking of Sarah. (still -2 words off the original).

Was Doing — Practically any time you come across this construction of the word was with a verb ending in -ing­, you can be more direct by cutting out was and just using the past tense of the verb.  This one can save you literally over a hundred words depending on your writing style.

Ex:  The boy was running downtown.

Revised: The boy ran downtown. (-1 word)

Similarly, avoid having your characters “begin” to do things.  Just do them.

Ex: As the night chilled, Mark began to build a fire.

Revised:  As the night chilled, Mark built a fire. (-2 words)

Little changes like this add up over the course of an entire manuscript.  You’ll be blown away by how many words you can tighten your work.

Almost — or nearly or barely or whatever vagueness you wish to employ.  There are numerous reasons to avoid this construction and word count is among those reasons.

Ex: The bullet slammed into his chest, almost ripping a hole into his heart.

Rather than tell us what almost happened but really didn’t happen, let’s cut some words and fill them back in with what did happen, creating a more exciting, more visual sentence.

Revised:  The bullet slammed into his chest, nicking his heart. (-4 words)

Obviously, context is important here.  If in the story the heart shouldn’t be touched at all then forget the heart and tell us what the bullet did hit.

Revision 2: The bullet slammed him backward, snapping a rib in two. (-3 words)

Notice here that by being specific about the rib, I no longer needed to mention the bullet hitting the chest and could replace that prep-phrase with something offering more detail.

These are just basic examples but this is the kind of line by line, word by word editing I will do with the purpose of tightening my prose.  The benefits are enormous.  Your work will be clearer, read smoother, and take up less manuscript space thus opening great opportunities for development of the important aspects of storytelling — character, plot, description, etc.  And notice that the examples provided were simple sentences.  If you don’t want to kill too many of your darlings, then clean up the simple sentences so there’s room for all those precious words you have used elsewhere.  Without any change to your concept, these revisions will improve your writing tenfold (maybe more!) and make your work that much better.  Good luck!


39 comments to Revisions — Cutting Words

  • Thanks Stuart for this good advice. Much of what you suggest makes for better writing as well as shorter writing (though I don’t believe shorter is always better, of course). Great focus on tightening sentence-level specifics. Thanks.

  • Thank you Stuart for the advice and great examples. I’m still in macro editing mode on my novel length MS, but can use these right now on some short stories I’m trying to tighten.

  • AJ — Just to be clear, I’m not advocating nothing but shorter sentences. In fact, take a look at the soup example — in the 3rd revision, I add words making it almost the same length as the original. The point is to cut useless words and either leave them out or give yourself the room for more purposeful prose. As for the bullet thing — wait…what happened to it?? Did you sneak back in and edit your comment?? 😉

    Alistair — Something I didn’t put in the post but I’ll add here –> The more you practice doing this type of prose tightening, the easier it will become, and eventually, it’ll just slip into your original sentences making those novel-length manuscripts a tiny bit simpler to revise. Good luck with your all your works.

  • Stuart, I really needed this. I am currently rewriting a novel by the AKA, and cutting, tightening, rearranging … sometimes gutting whole scenes. This novel was originally written for my UK pub, back when books could be longer, and I could get away with it. Not so now, and the US pub wanted a lot cut. I am using a similar micro method to tighten, and after reading your post, I went back and compared numbers and was tickled pink at what I see.

    Old version was 139,453 words, at 436 pages.
    New version is 137,709 words, at 417 pages.

    I’m only about halfway through, and hope to cut another 17 pages and 2,000+ words. There is a part of me that loves this kind of micro surgery. It’s like a writing exercise for the real world. Thanks again.

  • Faith — Thanks right back at ya! Your posts on word choice and crutches are invaluable to me. One of the things I love about this “micro-surgery” is that it makes the prose better without changing any of the meat of the story. There aren’t many revisions we can do so painlessly.

  • This is a wonderful post — great advice, Stuart. Better still, it works beautifully with Faith’s posts about crutches. Because as I went through my WIP looking for crutches, I got rid of many of the occurrences by making the kind of micro changes you suggest here. Over the course of 440 pages, I lost maybe a thousand words. But as you point out, I did more than that: I replaced another thousand useless words with meatier ones, and made the manuscript far stronger in the process.

  • Cool. I’ll have to look for these on the next read through. One thing I’ve noticed is that I tend to fill in detail on the second draft, so I end up adding words to the piece with further detail, description, filling in plot holes, etc. I guess I write under the cooking principle that adding is a lot easier than taking away. 😉 This’ll help cut down some words after I’ve added the finer details.

  • Beatriz

    was doing

    Similarly, avoid having your characters “begin” to do things. Just do them.

    This was the biggest ah-ha moment I’ve ever had regarding writing. Thank you for this gift.

    The only writing I do (or care to) is an in-character journal for the rp game I play with a few friends. For months I’ve been unhappy with the journal but couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. I read you post and TADA– I’ve been “was-ing” and “began to” all over the place. Ugh.

    Now I can’t wait to get home and tackle the writing I’ve been avoiding all week! I owe you one for this. 🙂

  • David — Thanks. 🙂

    Daniel — This may come from my years directing theater, but I find the opposite to be true in most artistic ventures. For me, it’s far easier to prune than to grow. After all, cutting just means looking at something already there and deciding what’s wrong with it. Building up requires actual creative work and that can be far more demanding.

    Beatriz — What a wonderful thing to say. All of us here at MW are thrilled when we learn that we’ve helped somebody out like this. So, you’ve made my day. Thanks!

  • Now I can’t wait to get home and tackle the writing I’ve been avoiding all week!

    Indeed, get typing! I’ve been waiting to read Rage’s thoughts!

  • Does it make me a writer that I started doing this in my WIP, rather than paying bills? On second thought. Don’t answer that!

    Great post, and I heartily agree with almost everything.

    My two mumbles:

    I think it’s okay to begin to do things if the things are going to get interrupted before they’re completed.

    Qualifications such as almost and about do have a great use in the dialog of experts, especially scientists. I just got an earful of that yesterday, and if you ever listen to scientists, they’re always qualifying their statements. Example: “How big’s that whale out there, Jim?” “More than 20 meters I think. See, it’s longer than that yacht it just hit?” You may or may not remember a lesson about false accuracy from school, but it’s an important and subtle point. You can be accurate and precisely wrong, or vague and mostly right. Scientists are trained in this to varying degrees (chemists more than biologists, for example) and it comes out in their speech.

    Otherwise, I absolutely agree with cleaning up text, and I’m going to get back to it right now, while I can still avoid paying bills!

  • I liked the you kept mentioning context. Most of the time, these phrasings are irrelevant and slipped into the writing un-asked; but when it does matter that “he was running” or that “he began to build the fire”, it’s important not to go too far with your cuts. Great balance.

  • Thank you for such concrete examples. I have a weekend of rewrites planned and this will help keep me focused. 😀

  • This is what I am doing now. Trying to turn passive, clunky sentences into better sentences. Sometimes I just scribble down Revise. I know it needs improvement, but I cannot figure out what. sigh.

  • het — regarding your first mumble –> see Atsiko’s comment. Regarding your second mumble –> Something I took for granted and see now should have been clear in the post is that these guidelines are meant for straight prose not dialogue. Dialogue has completely different rules and must be taken on its own terms.

    Atsiko — You know it. I’ve mentioned it before but balance is always the issue with any writing rule. How to balance the rule, how to balance the various parts of the work, how to balance the balance.

    Moira — Good luck with your rewrites!

  • Mikaela — Just knowing something’s wrong is half the battle. Some people never develop that inner-ear to “hear” that a sentence has a problem. So, cheer up! You’re on the right path. 🙂

  • @ Beatriz — That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, chronicle the adventure for the players to read, but I tend to forget bits before I can get it all down. Always wondered if I should break out a good mic and record the sessions. 😉

  • Emily

    Mikaela> you post made me laugh. I do that… I’ll be editing, get annoyed and write “FIX THIS!” (with underlines) next to passage, as though later, someone else and not me will come along to revise it.

    Stuart> Thanks for this… I had to work on (and still have to work on) cutting the “began to…” construction. I’ll look into my preposition use, although while I was editing today, I remember doing just what you did and turning a prepositional phrase into an adjective or adjective phrase.

    The “form of be + -ing verb” thing. I waver on this one… I agree that a good chunk of the time, switching to the simple past tense is the best thing to do… I guess if there are concurrent things going on. “As he was running, the bullet slammed into his shoulder…” to give the sense of motion?

    Now I’ve got a question (and at 730 on a Friday night, too!). How do you (and all the MW writers if they like) deal with the past perfect tense? The “had [verbed]” ? It’s for events that happened before the past events… and so I’m not sure how it can work in narration. I’ve used but, I’m not certain if it is a good idea. “She had come that evening wanting a conversation, a real connection, but she found a bloody body instead.” (I dunno, I just made that up as an example.) I’m just curious what you folks think about that tense.

  • Emily, Just my thoughts, and you *did* ask for *our* thoughts on it…(grins)

    Your example is a *mini* flashback.

    Let’s look first at a *big* flashback.
    Rule of thumb for me — for *big* scenic flashback — is two *had*s, followed by a return to whatever tense used in the novel.
    We had been walking home from school, and the car had pulled up beside us. The passenger rolled down the window.

    Then after the big, scenic FB is done, 2 *hads* and a return to the tense.

    For *mini* flashbacks the way you did it works for me. All this, and I still need to mention that my writing proff was an old guy, back 20 years ago …

    Stuart may have other thoughts, but that is the way I do it. Like my old writing teacher.

  • Emily — Nothing wrong with using past perfect. I find if I write in first person POV it comes up more often. The thing you have to be careful with is the whole showing vs telling. Past perfect can easily slip you into too much telling. The only other thing I can think of off the top of my head is that you need to make sure you have the grammar of it correct. If you don’t know which verbs get the “had” and which don’t, look it up. Otherwise, you’ll be revising yourself silly trying to fix it all so that it makes proper sense.

  • Faith, your comment up on my screen just after I put in mine. I had never heard the specific 2 ‘had’s rule (I don’t know if I ever counted), but the core idea is a bullseye. A lengthy flashback would be unreadable if you put “had” into every sentence. A few to get us into it and a few to get us out works for me. Now I’ll have to start counting my “had”s.

  • I’ll chime in on this one, too. I used to overdo the past perfect — too many “had”s. At this point I try to err on the other side. For a lengthy flash back I would try to use one, MAYBE two. Certainly no more. For Emily’s example, I might not even use the one. “She came that evening wanting a conversation…” Or maybe “She went that evening…” But I find the “had”s cumbersome and try to avoid them. This isn’t to say that I never use it; sometimes there’s no other way to get the time reference right. But I don’t particularly like it.

  • I have a question about picking the right word in order to trim excess word count. This is also a question which can be easily directed to Faith, whose posts of picking the right word are brilliant.

    How the heck can we find the right word to convey the right meaning? This is from the ‘I am so slow at finding the right word from my vocabulary’ category. I know words with various nuances that mean the same, but at times I am just stuck with only two coming to me, when I need a different one. So, what can people like me do?

  • Harry — This is one thing that makes writers writers. We take the time, whether it be a few seconds or a few days, to find just the right word. We learn the nuance of words and feel it’s important. I’m curious what Faith will say to this but here are my answers: In the immediate, get a thesaurus and dictionary. There are reasons these two books are considered essential for any writer, and one reason is to answer your question. I also recommend starting your own personal list for words you use a lot — do the research while you’re not writing, then when you need the word, you go to your list, and there it is. Finally, improve your vocabulary. Read above your comfort level, do the old learn a word a day, whatever works for you but gain the knowledge so you don’t have to struggle to find the word. Good luck.

  • Beatriz


    A while back I asked for suggestions on a good thesaurus and Roget’s International Thesaurus(6th Edition) was the winner. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful.

    Just a thought,

  • Emily, you said…

    “As he was running, the bullet slammed into his shoulder…”

    Shorter and sweeter is, “As he ran the bullet slammed into his shoulder.”

    Much more direct, and you save a rare and endangered comma.

  • Harry, along with the aforementioned Thesaurus, I find ‘The Synonym Finder’ by J.I. Rodale to be handy–it lists many, many words for each entry and offers some very interesting alternatives.

  • Emily

    Alan> Yeah, I know it can be shortened that way, but my point was there are times when concurrent motion is best described using the past progressive (even if one must use a comma to do it…). That was an off the top of my head example, and so probably was made better by the shortening… but I’ve come across progressive uses that do work, and they’re often in the ongoing thing happening then action interrupts, stops, etc.

    Faith, Stuart, David> Thanks for the comments. They all made sense and am glad other folks are uncomfy with it at times, too. 🙂

  • Harry, first, thank you for the kind comment.

    Second, for me, finding the *perfect* word often waits until the first rewrite, which would be the next morning. (My dirty little secret? I’ve been known to write a sentence, knowing that I want a certain beat and rhythm, a certain specific construction and fill it all with the same word. Why? because getting the words on file before I lose the thought is more important at the time. Ex: John was bent and broken, twisted with the years. May have started out as John was bent and bent, bent with years. And fixed it later. But don’t tell anyone. Shhhhhh.[grins])

    Third, somewhere in either part one or part two of Word Choice, David B Coe shares his favorite reference books about word choice. I’m on a slow (very slow) laptop and will never find it myself, but you can scan the comments for David’s and write the title down down. There were some other good choices there too, as well as here today. The main thing is to get a Theasurus that shows the emotional and historical impact of all the similar words so you can pick just the right one.

    And I totally agree with Stuart — learning a word a day is a great idea.

  • Emily,

    So one could say, “He was running, the bullet slammed into his shoulder.”

  • ‘So one could say, “He was running, the bullet slammed into his shoulder.”’

    OK, but that’s a run on. I’d make it too sentences or revert to the “as…” phrase. But tehre’s content/weight issue here too. Personally, I’d be tempted to rethink the sentence. “As he was running, he noticed the flash of his reflection in shop window,” seems OK to me, but when bullets get involved I think they usually need to be upfront in the sentence. Otherwise the getting shot part sounds like an add on! Generally, unless you’re going for kind of deadpan understatement, big, important stuff shouldn’t feel tacked on to a sentence as it shouldn’t feel tacked on to a plot.

  • Oops, I’m posting on an old thread.

    We’ve got people shot while running. Probably the biggest question isn’t how to phrase it, it’s how to stay in the proper point of view.

    If you’re in the shooter’s POV, he was running when the bullet slammed into his shoulder. If it’s in the runner’s POV, then he might notice the muzzle flash, but I’ll bet the bullet gets into his shoulder before the image gets into his head.

    I’d also point out that when a bullet slams in, we’re not talking about a 22, and it’s probably going to change the guy’s motion. Can he run after a bullet slams into his shoulder? If so, he’s far better than I am. Running,should therefore stop when the bullet affects his motion.

    This gets to the question of perfect word use. My current rule is: “it’s a perfect word if both an unobservant AND an observant reader like it.” Translated and unpacked, this means: “I’m trying to tell a good story, one that sucks people in and leaves them satisfied at the end. Some people want to turn their brains off and enjoy the story, so too much erudition, detail, and sophisticated wordplay annoys them. Other people know what I’m talking about, probably better than I do. They enjoy seeing the details done right for once. My job is to keep both types of readers fully engaged in what I’m writing.” I wouldn’t dare pass myself off as an expert writer, ‘cuz I ain’t, but that seems to be a good enough rule for choosing words.

  • “As he ran the bullet slammed into his shoulder.”

    There, that’s how I’m framing it. Nyaaaahh! 😀

    There comes a point when you’ve just gotta say it. As the song goes, you can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.

    But that wasn’t what I set out to address this time, this time I have a different problem for people to ponder. What about those occasions when your writing is so spare it’s emaciated? What about those occasions when it needs fleshing out?

    Tom ran up the street, stopping at Mr. Grumhall’s house.

    Sparse? Yes, but depending on the story you want to tell it doesn’t necessarily give the feel you want.

    On a gloriously spring day, a day of apple blossoms and budding roses, a day of little girls in sundresses and grass stained feet, Tom ran up the street. Spindly brown limbs and bare brown chest glistening with sweat he stopped at Mr. Grumhall’s house, noting the brownies laboring hard at the gnome’s garden.

    Not to your taste no doubt, but it does present a different world than the first iteration.

  • Het>>
    If you’re in the shooter’s POV, he was running when the bullet slammed into his shoulder. If it’s in the runner’s POV, then he might notice the muzzle flash, but I’ll bet the bullet gets into his shoulder before the image gets into his head…. Running, should therefore stop when the bullet affects his motion.

    That last line is pretty subjective. Unless it’s a biga** round, and/or hits something major (heart, aorta, etc) he’ll likely know he’s been hit, but it will feel like a thump (a fist or similar). There may even not be much blood. He’ll keep on running for a while, often fighting for a while, until he sees blood (if there is any, or until he gets weak). Only after that will the pain set in. I’ve even seen people get all the way to hospital, denying they have been shot. Then they see the hole and pass out. Which makes me wonder if they would have kept on going forever had no one pointed out the wound…
    Then again, there are the people who get a tiny scratch and try to die on us…
    Just sign me your *seen almost everything* gal.

  • What Faith wrote about rounds stopping/not stopping people is accurate. And I’m just echoing what she wrote at the bottom and will that some people will get hit once and just drop and others can go on and on not realizing they are already dead after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds. I work in law enforcement for my day job, so unfortunately, I have some experience in this, never been shot though.

    Oh, and the little .22 round can be just as dangerous as it has a chance to ping around inside you once it enters ripping through organs and hitting bone. A hollow point .40 round causes much more localized damaged, and a bigger hole. Now, a shotgun slug, that could stop you in your tracks. Even buckshot at close range would stop you, as that is basically a bunch of slightly smaller than 9mm rounds pummeling you all at once.

    If you’re going to get shot, just hope it’s an armor piercing round that will just go right through and not hit anything major.

    Sorry for all the detail, it’s hard to keep quiet on something you deal with every day!

  • I’m staying out of the whole .22 thing. But to Alan I just wanted to remind you of the original post in which I make a point that context is important to these decisions. If the story needs to feel more detailed, then do it. The longer version you wrote begins the tale of a small town on a lazy day filled with nostalgia — a tale about Tom and, I expect, about how he lives in this town. But if the story is not about Tom running up the street to Mr. Grumhall’s but rather about what happens when he gets there, and remember — novel or short, you only get so many words to use — well, where do you want to use them? That’s the issue. Both approaches are correct for their proper context. It’s merely a choice you have to make as a writer.

  • @Stuart,

    Exactly! So glad we could agree. 🙂

  • Stuart,
    Great post. More to consider when I start revising Song of Fury. I’d comment on some of what’s been commented on thus far, but it seems I’m late to the party.

    Thanks for continuing on with the revision posts, between you and Faith, there may be hope for some of us yet.


  • Stuart & Faith,

    Thank you immensely. As usual, there are no easy answers and it’s individual for every writer. I have been having the same ideas to help build the vocabulary, so it’s reassuring to know I am heading in the right direction and address this one.