Tightening Your Manuscript

Tightening Your Manuscript and Trimming the Word Count

By Deanna Carper-Lilly

Now that the mechanics of achieving 250 words and 25 lines per page are out of the way, the manuscript is complete and perfect (you didn’t forget to remove the line numbers before printing and sending your “baby” to your editor) and at last the wait is over. Finally, you get the long awaited letter back. Your editor has fallen in love with your story BUT, she/he wants you to cut your 100,000-page masterpiece to 90,000 pages.

Panic sets in. You break out in a cold-hot sweat. 10,000 words?!? How am I ever going to eliminate 10,000 of my precious words? This is where the search or “FIND” function in your word processing program becomes YOUR BEST FRIEND. It’s too-easy to believe how quickly you can eliminate words. You probably already did this and are actually preparing your second submission from a novel you’ve hidden in the closet awaiting on a few, minor changes. As conscientious writers we always follow the word count guidelines — right?

Both MSWord and WordPerfect have the FIND function in the same place. Click on EDIT in the menu bar and trace down to FIND or FIND and REPLACE. (I prefer to use FIND so I don’t accidentally replace the words until I have figured out what I’m going to do in place of them.) Fill in the FIND dialog box with the following search criteria and start chopping those words out. In the process you will discover ways to make your sentences and paragraphs stronger.

To search for a partial word or ending such as “ly” you type ly and a space — that insures the find function looks for only words that end in “ly” but you may also have to search for “ly. ” (the period followed by a space) to insure you get the ones on the end of the sentence. Yes — this is very time-consuming — lots of searches — and most will cause a stop and rewrite. Just remember all this when you begin your next book and you will not only fly through the writing process but it will be almost perfect and take you less time to edit. Remember, this is not to say you need to eliminate all words with these endings, just reduce the number in the manuscript as much as you can.


1. Search for and eliminate as many adverbs as possible – (all “ly” endings, etc.)

2. Avoid “just” and “so.” Completely delete these two words. They are just so unnecessary.

3. Search for the words “was” and “were” and eliminate every possible occurrence (in most cases this makes the sentence passive and you don’t want any more than 2% passive per chapter — the word count function in the TOOLS menu will give you passive percentages). Read your paragraph … how many times have you said was? Too many, I’ll bet. Write it like you talk… was is ok then. But remember, repetition of any word tends to bore your reader.

4. Eliminate every occurrence of “that” – unless it’s absolutely necessary (and that doesn’t mean replacing it with “which” – and learn the difference between the two words).

5. Make sure you use “had” only going into a flashback and once again coming out of the flashback or memory sequence. Find another word to replace had in every other use.

Example: He had to work late into the night.

Fix 1: He worked late into the night.

Fix 2: Fatigue tugged his eyelids. Mary’s life depended on him. For her sake, he got another cup of coffee.

6. Avoid over using the ending “ing.”

7. Vary the first word of each paragraph as well as the first word of every sentence. Do not let more than two paragraphs on a page start with the same word.

8. Do not let your characters talk aloud to themselves — unless they are a little bit crazy and it’s necessary to the plot.

9. Eliminate dialect [unless you know what you’re doing and have consulted a non-fiction source]. Think of Forest Gump here — it took me months to finish the book because the dialect drove me nuts — a few well chosen words that your character always uses is a great way of using dialect and not driving your reader crazy. (I’m not knocking the book, just making an observation about dialect.) Learn the difference between an accent and a dialect.

10. After all these searches, do a search on the words, “and, the, he, she, his, and her,” and see how many you can eliminate by either rewording your sentence or simply dropping out the word.

11. Avoid dialog tags – “he said, she said” make the preceding or following sentence show the action and who is speaking. (Sometimes you need a dialog tag.)

Example: “Can’t you ever be a proper wife?” Mark growled in anger.

Fix: Mark threw the plate of spaghetti she handed him against the wall with enough force to rattle the windows. “Can’t you ever be a proper wife?”

Yes, I know. That correction added words. If you eliminate the unnecessary stuff you have room for stronger sentences, even if they add words every now and then. And remember, these are simply suggestions, they are not written in stone. Your work must reflect your voice to be unique and sell.

Bye the way, when I am doing these searches, I hum the old song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair” for the movie South Pacific. Corny, I know… but, oh well.

Good luck and good writing. Deanna Lilly