Editing Cheat Sheet: Words to Cut!

Looking to clean up your novel and need some pointers on how to trim that wordcount and tighten things up without cutting big, important scenes? Then this Cheat Sheet is for you!

Below is a list of “fluff words” and phrases that would pass any technical review of a draft, but with a little tweaking, they can cut down your wordcount – possibly by thousands of words!

Check it out:

  • Out of the” –> “from the“. Ex: “He stepped out of the woods” becomes “he stepped from the woods.”
  • Knew that” –> “knew“. Ex: “She knew that time was running out” becomes “she knew time was running out.”
  • That” can often be omitted. Ex: “It seemed that he was lying” becomes “it seemed he was lying”, or “the sword that her father had given her” becomes “the sword her father had given her.” NOTE: “That” is grammatically correct when joining verb and noun, such as “the trees that grew in the meadow.”
  • Off of” –> “off” or “from”. Ex: “She threw him off of her trail” becomes “she threw him off her trail”, or “He stepped off of the edge” becomes “he stepped from the edge.”
  • All of” –> “all“. Ex. “He reviewed all of the reports” becomes “he reviewed all the reports”.
  • Of the.” This is a big one and has to be taken case-by-case, but I found this to be the one I changed the MOST. It took me about 6-8 hours to get through every instance of this in my draft. “Of the” is a passive-voice phrase that can really lag the narrative. Tightening up the passive into active can trim your wordcount significantly AND speed up the narrative by enormous bounds.Ex: “The edge of the table” becomes “the table’s edge”, or “the surface of the water” becomes “the water’s surface,” or “the tip of the blade” becomes “the blade’s tip.” Each of these changes the cadence of the sentence – I mean, oops! The sentence’s cadence. See how different that reads?

    BECAUSE this is a cadence issue, there are times you might want to keep “of the” for flow. I’ll give two examples from my own writing:

    In Starchaser 1, I had this sentence: “The halls of the Citadel—her home and the kingdom’s crown jewel—looked no different from any other night.” Had I changed it to “the Citadel halls – her home,” it would imply the halls themselves as her home, rather than the Citadel as a whole.

    In a later paragraph, however, I started with this: “She could just barely glimpse two of the four bridges that joined the Citadel’s enormous stone plot to the rest of the town. Beyond that, there was a small pocket of coastline visible, glimmering jewel-bright under the light of the full moon.”

    When I edited for fluff, I came up with this: “She could just barely glimpse two of the four bridges that joined the Citadel’s enormous stone plot to the town. Beyond that, there was a small pocket of coastline visible, glimmering jewel-bright under the full moon’s light.”

    Always remember that you know your own book better than anyone. So if you feel you need to keep an “of the”, don’t feel like you absolutely have to cut it! But especially if the phrase repeats a few times in one paragraph, like I did above, consider how you can speed up the tempo by shifting a few instances around.


A Closing Note: Dialogue Tags and Actions

I have found a significant way to trim my wordcount has been to look out for places where a character first says, then does. In lots of cases – not all, but lots! – you can speed up the pacing of a scene by looking for places where you can cut dialogue tags before actions.

For example:

“I’m fine,” she snapped, slamming the plate down on the table.

can become

“I’m fine.” She slammed the plate down on the table

OR

She slammed the plate down on the table. “I’m fine.”

Notice how each version has a different flavor and cadence? The “snapped” is fine, but we get a pretty good idea of the tone by her motions alone!

If you’re looking to cut down on words in your draft but you’re at a loss for what can be changed, try combing through for instances where you have a dialogue tag followed by an action; see if you can restructure things so that the dialogue tag is omitted and the action speaks for the character’s tone.