The Manuscript Diet

Looking to whittle down your word count? Here are three simple ways to cut the fat.

Hand with red pen proofreading  by laptop

Eliminate passive voice

Remember this from elementary school? Passive voice is the difference between “The boy kicked the ball” and “The ball was kicked by the boy.” In the former, the subject (boy) is doing the action—in this case, kicking—while in the latter, the object becomes the subject (ball), but the ball isn’t actually doing anything. It’s just being acted upon. Why get rid of passive? For one, it’s clunky.  Passive voice adds drag to your sentence. Worse than that, it’s boring. Who wants to read about a subject if it’s not going to do anything?

But don’t be too quick to jettison all the passive voice in your manuscript.  Passive voice can be great for a deliberate dodge:  for example, instead of “I made a mistake,” a character might say, “Mistakes were made.” Taking the emphasis off “I” makes the character seem a little less directly responsible . . . and from the reader’s vantage point, that’s an interesting choice.

Simplify your verbs

We’ll stick with the verbs for another round. Say your protagonist is walking through the woods. You could write this:

The leaves were crunching as she was walking slowly down the path.

Grammatically speaking, this is fine. (And if you want to get all technical, there’s a name for this tense: the past continuative.) While the past continuative is nice and all, is it necessary that we know the character’s walking and the leaves’ crunching are both repetitive actions, or can we trust that the reader is smart enough to figure that out? Let’s try this again:

The leaves crunched as she walked slowly down the path.

See the difference? You’ve streamlined your sentence and given it a little more immediacy.

Kill your adjectives

We’ll wrap this up with modifiers.

Mark Twain reportedly once wrote this to a student:  “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.”

I don’t care what your 4th grade teacher said about unpacking your adjectives. Twain’s right.

At their worst, adjectives and adverbs are fluff (particularly words like “very” and “really”). Those can be eliminated immediately. But even when they’re useful, modifiers are like potato chips—one is never enough, and before you know it you’ve got the verbal equivalent of a spare tire and a pair of love handles.

A stronger verb can give color and meaning to your sentences better than a modifier. Let’s return to our protagonist in the woods and see if we can use our verbs to add some spark.

The leaves crunched as she walked slowly down the path.

Now, there’s not much modifier glut here—not yet, anyway—but we can still aim for precision and trim the fat:

The leaves crunched as she trudged down the path. (Perhaps the character is dejected.)

The leaves crunched as she meandered down the path.  (Now maybe she’s lost.)

The takeaway

Bottom line? In about five minutes, your writing can go from bloated to lean if you tighten up your verbs and cut some modifiers.

If only toning my abs was that easy!



Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.

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