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A Revision Checklist

Cutting words is a task most writers face during revisions. We may scrutinize each line and even each word to meet the publisher’s requirements. I’ve cut hundreds of words from an article or story and thousands from various book manuscripts. Cutting can be challenging, but it’s important, and we can master it. Tight, polished prose also reads better, so cutting can improve our style.  

Now consider this (wordier) Version #2:

During the course of a writing career, most if not all writers are told that they have to cut words from a manuscript they are revising, whether it is an article, short story, or book. I myself have been in that position more than once, having to go through my work line by line and sometimes word by word in order to not go over the word count that the publisher is requiring. This can occur when a story or article is, perhaps, up to a few hundred words longer than the publisher is asking for, and I have even been faced with the job of having to cut thousands of words from a book manuscript that is not nearly at the right length. This situation can be frustrating, difficult, and challenging, but if we will take the time to learn some helpful cutting tips, we can get better at it. As a result, we can produce a tighter manuscript that will be read more easily and has a better style than what we first wrote.   

As you see, Version #2 is much longer than Version #1— 176 words vs. 64. But does it provide more information? And which paragraph would readers prefer?

The difference is what editors call “weedy words,” “bloated prose,” and “baggy sentences.” Use this checklist to avoid those pitfalls:

Start by asking: Have I said the same thing more than once? Version #2 contains two similar phrases: “that the publisher is requiring” and “what the publisher is asking for.” In Version #1, that information appears once: “the publisher’s requirements.” Version #2 also repeats “story,” “article,” and “book.”

Check your adjectives. A sentence in #2 says “This type of situation can be frustrating, difficult, and challenging…” One adjective is enough; in #1, I used “challenging.”

Here are more examples of unnecessary repetition:

Unnecessary: The damp morning grass was sprinkled with dew.
Correct: The grass was sprinkled with dew.

Unnecessary: A familiar feeling of fear jolted him as it did every time he heard thunder.
Correct: Fear jolted him as it did every time he heard thunder. (“Every time” = familiar.)

Unnecessary: “What in tarnation is that?” she asked in alarm.
Correct: “What in tarnation is that?” she asked.

Unnecessary: Stanley arrived home safe and sound.
Correct: Stanley arrived home safe.

Unnecessary: A sense of peace and tranquility settled over the farm.
Correct: Tranquility settled over the farm.

Check for wordy verb phrases and passive verbs. Note the –ing verbs in #2: are revising, is requiring, is asking for, having to cut. For tighter, smoother writing, try changes like: “word count that the publisher is requiring” becomes “word count the publisher requires” or “the publisher’s word limits.”

Passive verbs can be weak word-wasters. Here are ways to cut in #2:
Passive: “I have even been faced with the job of”
Correct: “I have even faced the job of”   

Passive: “a tighter manuscript that can be read more easily”
Correct: “a tighter manuscript we can read more easily”

Other examples:
Passive: “A decision was reached that”
Correct: “They decided that.”

Passive: “It was time she was getting dressed”
Correct: “she needed to dress.”

Replace verb-adverb combinations with vivid verbs:
With adverb: He walked quickly away.  
With strong verb: He hurried away.

With adverb: They carefully looked at the research.  
With strong verb: They analyzed the research.

Positive phrasing
Change negative statements to positive. In #2, “not nearly at the right length” can become “much too long.”

Another example:
Negative: She was hardly ever on time.  
Positive: She was usually late.

“Stage Business”
Avoid too many ‘steps’ when people go from place to place. Ted doesn’t need to stand up, walk across the kitchen, open the door, and step onto the grass to move from the breakfast table to the yard.

Speaker tag lines
Tag lines can often be simplified or cut, as long as readers can identify the speaker: 

Unnecessarily long: Maura chose a painting. and asked, “How’s this?”
Correct: Maura chose a painting. “How’s this?”

Watch for extra tag lines in dialogue. An example:
–    Sneering, Jason said, “I’m onto you.” Then he exclaimed, “Keep away!” He added, “You’re trespassing.”

When you need big cuts …

For fiction:

  • Does every scene move the plot forward? Can I cut scenes that, although interesting, don’t enhance plot or character development?
  • Does every character play a meaningful role?
  • Do flashbacks create the need for extra transitions?
  • Can I cut any description?
  • Where can I “show,” not “tell”?
  • Can I trim dialogue?
  • Did I state things readers can picture for themselves?

For nonfiction:

  • Did I stay focused throughout?
  • Did I organize my material to avoid repetition in different sections?
  • Did I use too many clauses or fancy words?   

Bookmark this page and consider this checklist the next time you need to trim a manuscript that’s too long or too wordy.

Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold  Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria teaches at The Institute of Children’s Literature and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised—and cut—a 230,000-word book for adults.

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