Tightening Your (Manuscript’s) Belt: a Checklist for Eliminating Unnecessary Prose

iStock_000011338536LargeWriters: we like to write. Some of us (like me!) like to write lots and lots and lots of pretty words…and then have to cut half of them during the rewrite/polish process.

I’ve been doing a LOT of rewriting—and cutting and tightening—these past few months. If you need to do a bit of your own manuscript pruning, read on for ways to tighten your story and bring down your word count!

Checklist for Tightening the MS Belt

1. Do you say the same thing twice?

  • Example: Sudden tears burn at my eyes, angry and hot.
  • Rewrite: Sudden tears burn at my eyes.
    –“angry and hot” doesn’t add anything to the description

  • Example: It’s almost worse that he sounds okay. If he was overwhelmed with emotion, I could forgive him more easily.
  • Rewrite: It’s almost worse that he sounds okay.
    –“If he was overwhelmed with emotion, I could forgive him more easily” doesn’t add new information.

2. Do you use two adjectives when one might do?

  • Example: He blinked bright eyes the color of blueberries.
  • Rewrite: He blinked eyes the color of blueberries.
    –Okay, it’s nice to know his eyes are bright, but is that really important for the scene? Probably not.

3. Do you use an adverb and verb when a single strong verb might be better?

  • Example: Cass put the pot angrily on the stove.
  • Rewrite: Cass slammed the pot onto the stove.
    –“slammed” replaces “put…angrily”, cutting a word and increasing emotional impact

4. Do you spell out information that’s already implied?

  • Example: We won’t be here long. There’s no reason to change your schedule just because we’re north of the equator for a few weeks.
  • Rewrite: There’s no reason to change your schedule just because we’re north of the equator for a few weeks.
    –“We won’t be here long” is implied.
  • Example: “I know it’s hard,” I say finally. “It’s okay.”
  • Rewrite: “It’s okay,” I say finally.
    –“I know it’s hard” is implied by the fact that she forgives him enough to say “it’s okay.”
  • Example: “Yes, I was going to tell you. I was waiting for a good time.”
  • Rewrite: “I was waiting for a good time.”
    –Again, “Yes, I was going to tell you” is implied if we skip straight to “I was waiting for a good time.”

On a larger scale, it’s easy to do the same sort of overwriting with scenes as well as sentences. Here are a few final rewrite questions:

  1. Do you show any scene that might better be narrated in a few succinct lines? We all know the old “show-don’t-tell” adage, but if you show every event in your novel, you’ll never reach the end.
  2. Do any of your scenes repeat an earlier event? Sometimes, I discover that I’ve written two scenes that serve essentially the same purpose: they reveal the same information, develop the same relationship, or move the story forward in the same way. When that happens, one scene needs to go.
  3. Do you give too much stage direction as you move between scenes? Often you can skip straight from point A to point B with only a sentence to orient your reader. Look for extraneous stage directions and cut!

Happy writing—and rewriting and slashing and pruning!

:) Cheryl

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know - www.cherylreif.com

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. Jill Kemerer says

    Great tips, Cheryl! I find that I overuse settings also. The coffee shop might be great for two scenes, but four? I force those characters somewhere else!

  2. Cheryl Reif says

    Thanks Jill :). That's a good tip–you have to repeat settings some of the time, but sometimes a new setting could add value to the story instead of repeating old info. I'll have to add this to the list!

  3. Patrick says

    Good tips as always, Cheryl. You remind me of an editor I once had who would hack my stories with a purple pen. How I came to loathe the color purple! I will say, though, that once I find redundancy in my own writing, I smile when I see the word and page count go down in Word.

  4. Cheryl Reif says

    This has been on my mind quite a bit lately…perhaps because I've been hacking at my own WIP. I added three new scenes and still brought the word count down 4000 words. By the end of the process, I was very quick to cut!

  5. Julie Musil says

    I'm revising right now, so this list is a big help. I definitely add too much stage direction, which I notice right away in my first read through. Thanks!

  6. Cheryl Reif says

    Thanks, Julie–glad to hear it helped!

  7. C.M. Doran says

    These are great tips. I'll have to read them over and over again as I hack away at a short story. Thanks for writing.

  8. Patricia Lynne says

    Thanks for the tips. Examples too, they give me ideas what to look for.

  9. Rachael Harrie says

    What fantastic tips Cheryl. These will come very handy in my revisions. Bookmarked!



  10. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Patricia and Rachael. Thanks so much for your feedback! You made my evening :)