Writing Tight: 10 Tips for Trimming the Fat From Your Prose

It doesn’t matter if you write fiction or non-fiction: sooner or later an editor is going to ask you to cut the words in your manuscript or article. It could be for space constraints (as in a newspaper or magazine) or simply because the prose is bloated.

Often, particularly in fiction, it’s not about the numbers: suggested edits are more about improving the narrative language than about reducing word count.

So, how can you reduce the length without changing the meaning (or the artistry) of your words?

Consider cutting the following from your manuscript:

1. Words which don’t add anything meaningful.

“That,” “just,” and “very” can almost always be cut from your work. You can argue that a woman is “very pretty”, but I will tell you she’s beautiful. See the difference?

Mark Twain suggests that writers, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Some common words to consider deleting are: about, actually, almost, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, generally, just, just then, kind of, nearly, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, totally, truly, utterly, very, were

(Also: do you notice how imprecise these words are?)

2. Redundant expressions.

Redundant expressions are groups of words (usually a pair) in which at least one word may be omitted and the meaning remain the same.

Some examples include: forever and ever (just say: forever), commute back and forth (just say: commute), exact duplicate (just say: duplicate), or fellow classmates (just say: classmates).

3. Pleonasms.

Pleonasms are a subset of redundancy, specifically referring to using too many words to communicate the point.

Examples include: put a glass down or sit down (omit down), he entered into the room (omit into), ink pen (omit ink), or extra accessories (omit extra).

4. Clichés.

Clichés are worn-out expressions, once bright and shiny, which from overuse (particularly in conversation) have lost their luster. Most people use them in discussion because their meaning is easily understood. It’s efficient to make a point by using expressions known by many.

However, some editors feel that dependence on clichés signals a “lazy” writer. Avoiding them could mean the difference in getting published.

Some common clichés are: for all intents and purposes, fit to be tied, above and beyond the call of duty, off the cuff, ugly as sin, on top of the world.

5. Over explanation.

Unless you’re writing a news story, or a technical document where explanation is required, omit it. For fiction, this means leaving out unnecessary backstory.

6. Phrases which don’t get to the point.

Don’t use: “started to”, “prepared to”, “began to” or any similar construction. “I ran” is more to the point, and more succinct, than “I started to run.”

7. Passive voice.

Passive voice is denoted by any form of the verb “to be” (was, were, is, that) coupled with a past participle, implying that a subject has something done to it rather than performing the action itself.

Passive: The ball was thrown by the girl.

Active: The girl threw the ball.

8. Adverbs (especially those ending with “ly”) and adjectives.

Adverbs ending in ‘ly’ are usually unnecessary. Adjectives are often over-used. It’s not uncommon to find two or three adjectives where one (or none) is better.

9. Purple Prose and Over-Done Angst

Remove or chop passages which are overly descriptive, including narrative that describe a character’s thoughts and/or feelings in too much detail, i.e., too much inner dialogue.

10. Narrative which tells the reader what he or she already knows.

Following even a few of these examples will tighten your prose considerable. But remember, no matter how many words your cut, your editor will likely find more!

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