Category Archives: Shortening manuscript

3 tips to master manuscript clutter

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Learning  to live clutter-free is quite a “thing” these days. How-to books make it sound possible to sort, organize and donate our way to a serene and less stuff-y life.

Maybe we writer types can take a hint from this trend toward simplicity.

My little miniature eclairs, I don’t know if I ever mentioned that I was once a freelance newspaper reporter. I got the fun, fluffy assignments. Right from the start, my editor told me, “Write tight and bright.” I liked that. Tight was easy to understand–watch your word count. But bright? I took that to mean, make sure your writing is not only polished, but also free of, you guessed it, clutter.

Am I master of my clutter? Ha ha ha. Still, please consider these tips to produce manicured manuscripts.

  • Read your manuscript out loud–or better yet, let someone else read it to you. Oh, golly. I’ll warn you. This can be painful, but it will prove to be a productive process. If someone is reading to you, have a copy of your manuscript in hand. You can make notes and circle or edit the repetitive words or phrases you need to extract. (And be sure to offer to return the favor for your reader, or give them a treat, or both.)
  • Use the Find/Replace function in Word to sniff out clutter. We all have crutch words. Mine is “just.” Chances are you have a word “that” you lean on too often as
    Collage by Vicky Lorencen

    Collage by Vicky Lorencen

    well. Find those prosey parasites and pinch ’em.

  • Toss those metaphorical single socks, chipped china cups and empty pens. Systematically review your manuscript, focusing on one of these categories at a time:
    • Purge adverbs. They aren’t the devil (sorry Stephen King), but adverbs aren’t angels either.
    • Pluck passive voice. Again, not the devil, but would you say–The road was crossed by the chicken. Uh, no. Aim for active voice. And smooth elbows.
    • Clip clichés. You have stunning imagination muscles. Flex them. Don’t rely on stale, trite, predictable, yawn-worthy expressions when you can blaze your own trail. Oops. I mean, mow your own path, pave your own lane or carve your own groove.

Okay, my little Word Warriors, remember, you have a mouse trap where your heart should be. You’ve never heard the word mercy. You carry red pens, and you’re not afraid to use them. Now, get out there and clobber that clutter. And then, yes, you may have a cookie.

Out of clutter, find simplicity. ~ Albert Einstein

the magical manuscript diet


Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

I can’t take too much credit. I discovered it by accident really.

Here’s how it all went down . . . I wanted to read the entire first chapter of my middle grade novel at an open mic night. The trick? I had to limit myself to three pages. My chapter was four pages.


Short of inventing Spanx for manuscripts, I commenced with some serious word whittling. I chopped. I reworded. I juggled and massaged.

Au revoir to adverbs!
G’bye to gerunds! (words ending in ing)
Adios adjectives!
Toodles to too much backstory!

I made every word plead for its life. When I was done, I’ll be darned if I didn’t even miss what was missing.


What if I went through my entire manuscript with virtual Ginsus, slicing and dicing like a Benihana hibachi chef. I became a knife-wielding word Ninja. A word whopping warrior princess. A slasher of syllables. I laughed in the face of paper cuts. I was, phew, I was exhausted.

But in the end, my manuscript was tighter, brighter and more focused. The Magical Manuscript Diet worked because I was willing to do the work.

How about you? Let me challenge you to revisit even one chapter in your current work in progress. See if you can shave off a page.

That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.
~ Kelly Barnhill