This article will give you some practical, easy-to-apply writing and editing tips guaranteed to improve the quality of your work and reduce your word count. While it is more geared towards long manuscripts (novels and novellas) most of it will apply to short stories, essays, and blogs too. Publishing is a competitive market and roping in readers sometimes proves as difficult as nailing Jell-O to the wall. By shaping your words in a format more easily read and bringing your word count down, you give your work a much better chance of catching attention.
Adverbs clutter up your narrative with unnecessary description. These words end in L-Y most of the time and writers tend to overuse them. A good test as to whether a word belongs or not is to strike it out of the sentence. If it still makes sense, leave it out. Let me show you what I mean.
Damiar crept silently down the hallway, hoping and praying his footsteps did not catch the attention of the guards roaming the castle.
Read that sentence without the underlined word. See? It still makes sense. The part about him hoping and praying not to catch the guards’ attention implies he’s trying to remain silent. Never assume your readers are dumb. That sounds basic, but it’s the truth. If you get in the habit of overstating your action, your narrative gets wordy and annoying. Here’s another example.
“Would you like me to show you the right way to do that?” Damiar asked.
“I don’t need any help from you,” Farrina snapped icily. She continued assembling the weapons vigorously, intent on doing her share without the assistance of others.
With a few exceptions, it is not necessary to say how a character says something. Using ‘icily’ to define a cold tone is overstated here. In the previous sentence, we glean Damiar’s condescension from his word choice. Context tells us she does not reply with a cheery tone. The same can be said of using the word ‘vigorously.’ Her intent is stated in the phrase afterwards, the sentences still make sense, and the same picture is painted.
Here you see a sample of sixty-three words, but you see how easy adverbs find their way into narration. Using some basic math, let’s assume a writer uses 3 adverbs per 63 words in a 100,000 word manuscript, or 1 adverb every 21 words (and this is a conservative estimation). Rounding down, that’s 4,761 words, an entire chapter’s worth, most of which do not belong. By minimizing your use of adverbs, you can cut thousands of words out of your manuscript.
Use of the word ‘That’
We love this word and I have no idea why. Perhaps it adds a bridge or transition while speaking on some subconscious level. I’ve seen writers use this word when they should use a comma instead. Just like adverbs, ‘that’ is an unnecessary word 99% of the time. Let me show you what I mean.
“I just wanted to say that I love you and that you mean the world to me,” Farrina said. Gazing into Razael’s eyes that turned blue after the incident on the waterfall. She knew that she loved him more than anything that she ever loved before.
I admit I overdid it here, but I want to paint a clear picture of just how little this words serves a narrative. I’ll let the story speak for itself here; read this excerpt with the word eliminated. Better yet, read both of them aloud. Remember, whatever it sounds like out loud is how it will sound in your readers’ heads.
“I just wanted to say I love you and you mean the world to me,” Farrina said. Gazing into Razael’s eyes, turned blue after the incident on the waterfall. She knew she loved him more than anything she ever loved before.
The proof is in the pudding. In this case, every single use of the word ‘that’ proved unnecessary, serving no other purpose than to cluster up the words and upset the flow. But as I stated before, we love this word for some reason and use it all the time in everyday speech. Regardless, this should not reflect in our work. You see how easy it is to use ‘that’ in just a 46-word sample. Let’s do some math again using the same hypothetical 100,000-word manuscript. So, 5 uses of the word ‘that’ for every 45 words (rounded down for easy math), or 1 use for every 9 brings us to a whopping 11,111 words! Here’s some free professional advice you can take to the bank: any time the opportunity to cut more than ten thousand words from your manuscript presents itself, do it!
Use of ‘To Be’ Verbs
This piece of advice is less about word count, and more about the quality of your narrative. Our job as writers is to paint a picture in the minds of our readers. Free-flowing description can accomplish this far better than the use of ‘to be’ verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, do, does, did, has, have, had, can, may, might, must, will, shall, would, should, and could. These words are lazy—plain and simple. Let me give you an example.
Lorrick and Damiar inched closer to the oasis. Through the trees, they could see there was a waterfall. Standing at the top of the rock face, there were several guards standing at attention, on the lookout for anyone who would intrude. With guards before them and behind them, danger was on both sides.
Writing this caused me pain, but for the sake of learning, I endured. Here’s the problem with using ‘to be’ verbs too liberally: instead of painting a picture, it reads like a list. He was six feet tall. He had brown hair. He was dressed in nice clothes. He did carry weapons with him. As a writer, our jobs are to show, not tell. ‘To be’ verbs only tell. Let me show you a better way to write the same passage and watch it come to life.
Lorrick and Damiar inched closer to the oasis. Through the trees, a waterfall cascaded over the rocks into a flowing river below. Standing at the top of the rock face, several guards stood at attention, on the lookout for intruders. With guards before them and behind them, danger lurked on both sides.
Without meaning to, and using more sensory details, I managed to rewrite this excerpt and use 1 fewer word (the first is 53; the second is 52). This tactic will increase your word count most of the time, but the good news is if you applied the other tips given so far, you’ll have plenty of room to fill your novel with rich description instead of monotonous lists and unnecessary words.
This is a tricky one as there are twelve tenses any verb can take in the English language. Past, present, and future, and then the simple, continuous, perfect, and perfect continuous of each one. Most writers write from a third-person limited perspective, and in a past tense. Since this is the most common style used, my examples will reflect as such. Let me note, if you write your narration in the present tense, this will not apply to you as much.
The tendency to utilize a past-perfect or past-perfect-continuous form of a verb when the past-simple form of the verb conveys the same message is hard to overcome. This is the area in which I struggle the most with the tips mentioned so far, and for several reasons. Both versions of the examples are grammatically correct and both versions convey a similar message. However, only of them is technically correct and is much more efficient.
Coralyn had been to the council chamber once when she was young. It had scared her then to stand before the elders, and it scared her now. Trembling with anticipation, her imagination ran wild as to why she had been summoned. She could hear her brother’s voice in her head. If he had said it once he had said it a thousand times. “You need to think about the consequences before you speak or act.”
Once again, I overdid it for the sake of illustrating a point. This excerpt is rife with past-perfect verbs and most of them unnecessary. The urge to distinguish one timeline from another prompts the writer to change the tenses of the verbs, but here’s the catch: all of the things described above happened in the past and can all be described with past-simple tense. Let me show you.
Coralyn went to the council chamber when she was young. It scared her then to stand before the elders and it scared her now. Trembling with anticipation, her imagination ran wild as to why she had been summoned. She heard her brother’s voice in her head. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times. “You need to think about the consequences before you speak or act.”
Do you see how both passages convey the same message, but one uses fewer words (9 to be exact)? You’ll notice I left one of them unchanged to serve as an example for when using a tense other than past-simple is necessary. Even still, personally, I would change “…why she had been summoned,” to, “why her father summoned her,” because it eliminates the words and gives the reader more of a story. Now they know who summoned her to the council chamber with the same amount of words used and no change in the verb tenses.
It’s math time again! The first example is 75 words, and the second is only 69. Using the same hypothetical 100,000-word manuscript, let’s assume using this tip will allow us to eliminate 6 words for every 75, or 1 word for every 12 (rounding down again). That’s 8,333 words less by applying the principle to its entirety. The best way to catch these is to read your manuscript aloud, take note of your verb tenses, and change them to past-simple tense if it still makes sense and conveys the same message.
As you can see, the best thing you can do for your work is to say as much as you can with as few words as possible. Fill your story with sensory details, not boring ‘to be’ verbs. Show your readers something they’ve never seen before, don’t tell them. For those of you are numbers people like me, the running tally of words reduced in our ongoing hypothetical is 24,205. That is almost 25%! Let me tell you, it’s much easier to sell 75,000 words to a publisher than 100,000—especially if every words counts.
Let me know what you thought of this article and if it helped you with your writing and editing process. Thank you for reading!