Trimming Your Novel: Low-level Trimming

What lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what’s it doing there? Make it do its job or cut it without mercy or remorse. – Isaac Asimov

You’ve already taken a step back from your story and trimmed superfluous content that doesn’t fit into three-act structure. Then you analyzed each scene and made sure it plays a strong role.

Now, at last, it’s time to ensure every sentence and word in your manuscript is pulling its weight. Read on to learn how you can identify and fix potential issues bogging down your writing.

Eliminate passive voice

Passive voice isn’t always bad. But rephrasing a sentence to use active voice will often help you cut words — and generally make your prose stronger overall.

Example: The dinner was served late by the innkeeper.

Reworded: The innkeeper served dinner late.

Cut filter words

Wherever possible, eliminate filter words. Filter words create distance between the narrator and the reader. Someone reading a story told in first person (or close third person) inherently understands the point of view character is the one doing the seeing / hearing / feeling / tasting / smelling / thinking / imagining. You can safely cut all words that seek to “filter” the character’s experience for the reader.

Example: When I observe dragons in their natural habitat, I notice they are actually quite peaceful.

Reworded: Dragons in their natural habitat are actually quite peaceful.

Here’s another example. Imagine a story where we know George is the main point of view character. We’ve been following his journey, told in close third person, and arrive at this paragraph:

Example: George halted his horse and watched the village burning. He could hear the flames crackling, see the embers spinning up into the air. But he couldn’t see any bandits. He wondered where they’d gone.

Reworded: George halted his horse. The village burned. Flames crackled as embers spun up into the air. The village was empty — where had the bandits gone?

The reader understands it is George experiencing all this. Since he’s the point of view character, the question in the last sentence is inherently his.

Don’t retread old ground

Make sure your dialogue and narrative don’t run in circles. With some exceptions, you shouldn’t be repeating information to the reader over the course of the story, and very likely not within the same scene.

Study your dialogue carefully; try to establish a logical flow of “topics” when characters are conversing, rather than jumping from one topic to another and back again (unless, of course, you do so deliberately).

Avoid overusing ‘that’

‘That’ is a frequently overused word. It seems to pleasantly slot into almost any sentence. However, there are very few cases where ‘that’ is actually a necessary word! Track down all instances of ‘that’ in your manuscript and see which can be cut.

Example: The potion that I prepared will make you invisible.

Reworded: The potion I prepared will make you invisible.

Example: I see that you like my apple pie.

Reworded: I see you like my apple pie.

You don’t need tags for every single line of dialogue

This is especially true if you have only a pair of speakers. There’s no need to remind readers which character is speaking every time one opens their mouth.

“You’re mean!” Barb shouted.
“No I’m not!” Jack protested.
“Yes, you are,” Barb said, “and I’m sick of it.”
“What did I do?” Jack asked.
“You always eat all the cupcakes,” Barb said.

Did you need all those tags to understand who is speaking? Or is the following example just as clear?

“You’re mean!” Barb shouted.
“No I’m not!” Jack protested.
“Yes, you are, and I’m sick of it.”
“What did I do?”
“You always eat all the cupcakes.”

Eliminate “to be” constructions

Sentences beginning with ‘there are/were’ and ‘it is/was’ should be prime suspects when tightening your prose. Consider the following:

Example: There were multiple sorcerers hiding in the crowd.

Reworded: Multiple sorcerers hid in the crowd.

Example: It is obvious someone cast a spell.

Reworded: Obviously someone cast a spell.

Use contractions

If you’re desperate, you can always look at using contractions wherever possible — for a long manuscript, small adjustments like this begin to add up!

Less is more

Don’t use two words where one will suffice.

Example: Increasingly, our lives are becoming overly scheduled, so there is little unstructured time to allow for relaxation.

Reworded: Our lives are becoming overly scheduled, leaving little unstructured time for relaxation.

Trim vague, cliché, or excessive description

You can safely cut (or improve) description that is vague and uninspiring (e.g. “the music sounds nice”), trite or cliché (e.g. “clear as a bell”), or in excess (description that goes on and on and on… especially about something inconsequential to the current scene).

Cut the obvious

Example: “She ripped out her stitches and screamed in pain.”

Rewritten: “She ripped out her stitches and screamed.”

In this case, the reader will assume the character is in pain. There’s no need to beat readers over the head by stating implicit facts.

Also watch out for stating the obvious at the sentence or paragraph level. In the first draft of These Fleeting Flames, I had the following:

I ignored him, turning my attention back to the Trial. If I opened the door a little more, I’d see Lord Nicandro standing before the dais.
Kit grabbed a lock of my hair and yanked. Hard.
I whirled, biting back a snarl. He just grinned his stupid gap-toothed grin. A red haze crossed my vision. I tackled him to the hallway floor.
We were going to start a fistfight right here in the middle of Lord Nicandro’s Trial.

I ended up cutting the last sentence — the preceding context made it pretty obvious to the reader that these two adolescent characters were about to start brawling. The additional summary was unnecessary.

Swap adverb-verb expressions for a single stronger verb

Ah yes, the dreaded —ly words. Hunt down adverbs in your manuscript and decide 1) whether you can cut the word because the context already does the adverb’s job, or 2) whether you can replace the adverb-verb expression with a single stronger verb.

Example: He ran quickly.

Reworded: He sprinted.

Eliminate empty words and phrases

A lot of writers keep lists of their personal problem words. “Just” is one of mine. Do a find on your manuscript to hunt down and eliminate empty words or phrases.

  • “in order to”
  • “whether or not”
  • “as a matter of fact”
  • “very”
  • “really”
  • “kind of”
  • “quite”
  • “actually”
  • “just”
  • “so”

Example: “The dragon was quite big and really angry.”

Reworded: “The immense dragon was furious.”

Cut unnecessary detail

Readers are smart. There is no need to describe the basic mechanics of movement.

Example: She waved her hands and nodded her head.

Reworded: She waved and nodded.

Example: He raised his arm and caught her hand as she passed.

Reworded: He caught her hand as she passed.

Cut prepositional clutter

You might be surprised how many extra words in your manuscript are caused by prepositions!

Example: The path through the forest was hidden from the eyes of the sentry.

Reworded: The forest path was hidden from the sentry’s eyes.

Example: The opinion of the councillor was that the prisoner should be executed.

Reworded: The councillor’s opinion was that the prisoner should be executed.

Cause should always precede effect

Not necessarily a way to cut words, but a good tip — action should never precede its cause. Otherwise, you’re forcing your reader to pause and reframe what they just read.

Example: “Alanna screamed when the attacking wolf bit her leg.”

Reworded: “The attacking wolf bit Alanna’s leg, making her scream.”

Additional Tips

Here are a few additional references for tightening your writing! The first two provide lists of problematic words to check for in your manuscript.


There you have it — three levels at which you can trim your manuscript by improving your story and strengthening your prose.

Return to the Trimming Overview page.

Photo by from Pexels

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