Easy Words & Phrases You Can Cut to Tighten Your Manuscript

How’s everyone’s summer going?

I just returned from New York with my family, where we filled the week with Broadway shows and all the major tourist attractions you’d expect. It occurred to me on our return home that both of my books have ties to New York. Jenny (Your Life Has Been Delayed) boards a flight from New York in 1995 and begins the story wanting to attend Columbia’s journalism program. Meanwhile, Maggie (My Second Impression of You) hopes to one day perform on Broadway. So if you check out my July newsletter–out today–I’ve included a feature with their comments of some of the attractions we visited.

Last month I talked about how I self-edited the first draft of my work in progress and promised I’d return this month with a focus on how I tightened and cleaned the manuscript. I cut approximately 7,000 words during my edit despite adding two scenes. Most of these are easy words and phrases you can scan through to eliminate, and they’ll also make your prose more active.

To be verbs + ing verbs

This combination is a particular weakness for me. I can’t tell you how many I found, and it’s almost never necessary. Here are a few examples:

  • I am wishing = I wish
  • They were dancing = They danced
  • He is waving = He waves
  • We are hoping = We hope
  • She is glittering = She glitters

Words you probably don’t need

I bet you’ve seen the words on this list before. They can be helpful for emphasis and voice, but I encourage you to examine every instance and ensure you need them. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you can probably delete the word/phrase.

  • Something
  • Just
  • Very
  • Really
  • Have to
  • The fact
  • Kind of
  • Somehow
  • That
  • Even
  • Still
  • Sort of
  • Back
  • Up
  • Like
  • Over

Extra body parts

Here’s another fun one–body parts that are unnecessary because they’re already implied. Do you nod your knees? Shrug your feet? Readers already know what these body parts are, so you can cut them.

  • Wave a hand
  • Nod my head
  • Wink or blink my eyes
  • Listen with my ear
  • Shrug my shoulders
  • Crawl on hands and knees
  • Step with a foot

Things to cut at the beginning of sentences

  • And/But/Because – It’s not because you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Novelists do it all the time. I do it. The question is: how often are you using them? I find myself using them way too often, so I make a pass through to decide which ones I like most for emphasis or voice.
  • I think/I realize/I know/I’m sure/I notice/I hear – Whatever comes next should signal that the character has thought/realized/noticed/etc. Same goes for close third person. So use sparingly for voice or emphasis.
  • I say/she says/he says when followed by an action beat. “Said” is one of those words that disappears into the background, but if you’re already using an action beat as well, it can disappear altogether.

Things to cut at the end of sentences

Is the object already obvious? If so, you can probably delete it from the end of the sentence.

  • to myself
  • to me/to him/to her/to them/to us

Look for phrases you can make more concise and/or more active

Some examples from my current novel:

  • I expect there will be = I anticipate
  • Come up with = develop, contrive, conceive, formulate
  • Come out = emerge
  • Are going to = will
  • Go on = happen
  • If it weren’t = except
  • The truth is = truthfully
  • Are out of = escape

What other suggestions do you have for tightening your manuscript?

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