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

This post–my Tuesday Ten stand-in–was originally published January 20, 2011. Hope you enjoy!

Writers: 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

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  1. says

    This is fabulous~ thank you for giving me a great post to refer back to!

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Hi Jess, glad these helped!

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Ha! That’s what a critique group is for….

  2. says

    I’m very heavy handed with my red pen and I mark all of this on my paper edits. This is a great list for people to refer back to, just to double check they’re doing it ‘right’ 😀

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Definitely helps me to have a list, because otherwise I tend to forget the obvious. Kind of like packing for a trip, come to think of it….

  3. says

    It’s just like “Where’s Waldo.” Thank you for pointing out the kid in the sweater.

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Great analogy! :)

  4. says

    Great examples! Writing tight and precise prose is definitely an art that comes with practice! Otherwise we don’t even see things like that. :)

  5. Cheryl Reif says

    Thanks for all the great comments! I’m a member of overwriters anonymous, too :).

  6. says

    Oh yes, I’ve done plenty of all of these no no’s. I loved your before and after examples, too.

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