Thursday, December 30, 2010

Weight Loss for Writers, or How I Trim Ugly Fat from My Manuscripts

By Jackie Houchin

[Editor’s Note: Jackie wrote this piece with her journalism work in mind. The tips she offers, however, are useful for any type of writing.]

Originally posted published at

Okay, I've conducted my interviews, checked my facts and written my piece. Now I'm ready to submit my story and wait for my check to arrive, right?


There's one more step to take before I hit that "Send" button. I must get out the scale and weigh my chubby little darling. What I usually discover is not pretty. My manuscript is not the lean, fit article I thought it was. There are double chins, love handles, and soft, flabby appendages. Eek! Now what?

Editing, like dieting and exercise, is not fun, but if I want a story tough enough to make it to publication, I must be ruthless.

Portion Control

The first thing I check is the word count. Whether it's a magazine guideline or an editor stipulation, I usually know the approximate number of words I can use. Mystery Scene Magazine limits reviews to 250 words. Some newsletters want no more than 400. The local newspapers I write for stipulate 600-700 words for articles with an occasional "feature" story at 1,000-1,500.

Microsoft Word 2007 keeps a running count at the bottom of the document window. It also gives an accurate character/word/sentence count in its "grammar check" feature. I have no excuse for word count bulge.

If I'm only slightly over, I do a quick scan for superfluous words ("tiny little" to "tiny"). If I've switched words, I make sure I've eliminated the previous one (I drove the my car). Of the 15 times I use the word "just" I take out all but one.

Hyphenations change two words into one, so do contractions if the tone of the piece allows it. (This is not exactly cheating.)

Sentences average about 10 words, so if I can cut one word from each sentence I've reduced my count by 10 percent.

If I'm way over count, major surgery is required. I view the piece as a whole and consider where I can condense or even cut entire paragraphs. I'm always surprised when this makes my article stronger. (Imagine how great you would feel if you could lose 15 pounds of fat overnight!)

Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs

Okay, my article is now comfortably within the allowed word count. Is it ready to submit? Not quite. While I have my red pencil out (finger hovering over the Delete key), I review it once more, this time checking the "nutritional" value of my words.

I look for clichés ("pretty as a picture"), delaying words ("It seems that..."), redundancies ("I thought to myself," "large in size,") and grand phrases ("institute of higher learning" instead of "college")

I change empty calories into powerhouse protein. "A dead body" is upgraded to "a corpse;" "he said in a loud voice" to "he shouted;" "dark yellow horse" to "Palomino;" and "really very funny" to "hilarious."

I exchange fat for fiber (the passive "was meeting" becomes an active "met") and I remove bloated descriptive words (several adjectives, most adverbs). Away with those unhealthy words and phrases! I want fat-burning, muscle-building prose!

Lean at Last!

Editing is not easy. It hurts to cut away words and phrases (or paragraphs) that I thought at first were brilliant. I do it because I want my articles to be published. If I want clips, creds, and checks, I have to work (and rework) at it. As they say, "No pain, no gain."

Wait, was that a cliché? Darn!

Jackie Houchin is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and theatre critic. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and California Writers Club.


E. B. Davis said...

Wonderful advice Jackie. Even though I know all of those lessons, reviewing them makes me think of recent pieces I've written with suspicion--got to go edit. Thanks!

Barbara said...

It's amazing how many extra words are hiding in there - and it's a great exercise to have to meet a tight word count, because the trimming always makes the piece better. My only problem is that it's hard to read anything afterward; I keep spotting those extra words.