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Less is More: 15 Quick, Clever and Clean Tricks to Reduce Manuscript Word Count
by Devyani Borade

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"Maximum length: 3000. Firm limit. No exceptions. And we don't mean 3001. Word count will be the first thing checked, so please pay particular attention to it."

Magazines threaten to reject submissions outright if writers have not adhered to the specified word limit. However, for writers, stringent constraints in wordage are a constant worry. Without being allowed any latitude in the inches, how will you be able to express yourself freely and exactly as you want? Will you be able to do justice to your story? Won't all the chopping and changing morph the very essence of the prose?

Word count is a critical piece of information about a manuscript. First, let's start with a couple of handy tip for all Microsoft Word users out there:

i. Text within headers and footers doesn't count towards your total word count. So you can place your name, email address, telephone, postal address, website and word count all within the header of the first page and MSWord will safely ignore these.

ii. MSWord helpfully counts and adds up your words for you at the single stroke of a key. To do this, place your cursor on the spot where you want to display the word count. Then on the Insert ribbon click the Quick Parts button. A second level menu drops down. Select Fields and a dialog box opens up. In the Categories dropdown field, select Document Information. From the Field Names list, select NumWords and click the OK button. Voila! The document word count appears! After you make changes to your document, simply hit the F9 key and MSWord updates the word count automatically.

Here are some fast and painless ways to ensure you keep that ticking total on the top right corner of your manuscript in check, and yet leave your beloved masterpiece unharmed and intact. And you don't need to be a star editor to use them.

1. Add authority to action

Say what? Add something to reduce the count? That's right! The "something" is words that denote exact and specific actions. For example, consider the following:

"You look like a slut," Mother said, her voice dripping with fury and loathing. (14 words)

"You look like a slut," Mother spat. (7 words)

Here "dripping with fury and loathing" describes Mother's state of mind but is verbose. "Spat" is a specific verb that does the same job efficiently with half the total number of words. It is both, clear as well as impactful.

Another example:

"Hello!" she said with a lilting voice. (7 words)

"Hello!" she sang. (3 words)

2. Use gerunds and cut out the conjunction

Using the '-ing' form of verbs eliminates the need for one or two other words, usually conjunctions. For example, consider the following:

He swam against the tide and soon reached the shore. (10 words)

Swimming against the tide, he soon reached the shore. (9 words)


She took a break and reflected on the situation. (9 words)

Taking a break, she reflected on the situation. (8 words)

3. Remove adverbs

Yes, we all know this is editors' constant refrain, but how many of us actually do it? When I first started writing, it used to hurt me to remove all my '-ly' words. I thought adverbs were marvellous things and that my prose would seem unemotional without them. Now I throw them in during the writing phase and yank them out during the review phase. It all happens so fast that I barely have time to grieve about them!

4. Remove "that"

The word "that" is probably the most used and least intrusive word in the English language. It is also sometimes so superfluous that it can easily be gotten rid of. Now re-read that last sentence again without the "that" in it It is also sometimes so superfluous it can easily be gotten rid of. Notice any difference in the flow of the sentence? No. In the meaning? No again. In the clarity of structure? Not at all. In the number of words? Aha! One down. Or rather, one up!

5. Remove "said"

In many cases, the ubiquitous "said" can become redundant if the sentence is re-structured more cleverly and the Point of View well established. This not only culls the count but also makes the sentences shorter and snappier and the prose punchier to hear. For example, consider the following:

She drew a knife from the cupboard and turned to the chef. "Here," she said, handing it over to him. (20 words)

She drew a knife from the cupboard and turned to the chef. "Here." (13 words)

The quote in the second sentence above is automatically ascribed to the woman without specifically indicating that it was she who spoke. The reader knows that the words are attributed to the woman because they are in the same line and follow contiguously from the description of what the woman is doing.

While this device comes in handy every now and then, it must be used with discretion or there is a chance that the reader may get confused about which character is speaking. When in doubt, don't.

6. Remove "the"

Sometimes articles at the start of sentences can be gotten rid of relatively safely. For example, consider the following:

The invisible reins around her neck tightened another notch. (9 words)

Invisible reins around her neck tightened another notch. (8 words)

Unless you are repeating something that has been mentioned before -- in which case a sentence without the "the" at the beginning might look odd -- this trick is good for a handful of words.

Another example:

The black ribbons lent the room a sinister air. (9 words)

Black ribbons lent the room a sinister air. (8 words)

7. Remove adjectives

Don't gild lilies. When two adjectives are more than enough to qualify a noun, why do you need seven? For example, consider the following:

The muddy brown old tattered faded shabby wooden armchair creaked as she sat down. (14 words)

Yes, the armchair was not brand new. We get it, we get it!

The tired-looking armchair creaked as she sat down. (9-going-on-8 words)

8. Compound verbs

"Has not" can become "hasn't", "she will" can easily change to "she'll", "can't" transforms "can not" and "you've" makes short work of "you have". Wherever possible, use the contracted form of verbs to reduce the count of such verbs by a factor of 50%. However, again, be aware that contracted verbs don't always flow well everywhere. Be judicious in your usage. There is a time and place for "it's" and a time and place for "it is."

9. Hyphenate

Thanks to the modern word-processing computer program, hyphenated words are counted as one word by default even though they occupy exactly the same amount of space as their non-hyphenated equivalents. Thus, "Twenty one" totals up to two words but "twenty-one" is just one. Other similar easy wins are "broken-heartedly", "up-and-coming", "good-natured", and "lickety-split." So go crazy on the hyphen, it's non-fattening!

10. Use names consistently

After you've introduced "Samuel Jones" and "Emily Black", stick to calling them "Samuel" and "Emily" rather than their full names. Also stay away from switching between first names and last names or creating nicknames. There's nothing calculated to bewilder the reader more than calling the hero "Samuel" once, then "Sam" on page 43, and then "Mr. Jones" on page 100, or worse, "our saviour, the dashing suave wavy-haired strong-jawed blue-eyed scion of the Jones stock" on page 658. Except, perhaps, when playing merry-go-rounds with the Point of View. See Point 4 above.

11. Pluralise

Use "writers" instead of "a writer", "readers" instead of "the reader", "people" instead of "a person". An added advantage of using plurals is that where you'd have to use "his or her" to denote personal possession, you can now conveniently use "their." No more relying on the mercy of the magazine's house style at the cost of declension for the puritans amongst us.

12. Substitute multiple with singular

Replace "on the other hand" with "conversely" or "alternatively", "in order to" with "to," "in addition to" with "also" or "along with." Other substitutions are "on time" for "in a timely fashion", "occasionally" for "on an infrequent basis," etc.

13. Avoid clichés, idioms and proverbs

Not only are clichés boring and indicative of lack of imagination on the writer's part, they also use up valuable real estate. Being precise pays. For example, consider the following:

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after her nap, she decided to get started on making lunch. (16-going-on-14 words)

Fresh from her nap, she decided to get started on making lunch. (12 words)

In fact,

Fresh from her nap, she decided to prepare lunch. (9 words)

...is even better!

(See what happened there? As I was writing the above sentences, a better way -- a shorter sentence -- occurred to me without my making a conscious effort to make it happen.)

Another example:

"I got the job," he said, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. (14 words)

"I got the job," he said, looking smug. (8 words)

14. Approximate time

Unless it is integral to your story -- say, your heroine has to provide an alibi for herself for the exact moment the murder was being committed -- generalising time to the nearest time of the day suffices to give the reader the rough idea. For example, consider the following:

It was eleven o'clock in the morning when she woke up. (11 words)

It was nearly noon when she woke up. (8 words)

The second version makes little difference to the plot!

And again,

It was noon when she awoke. (6 words)

...is best.

15. Stop dithering

Perhaps you could try to reduce word count by looking to see if it is possible maybe to attempt to remove indecision. Cease! Desist! Be direct in tone and active in voice. Avoid using "empty" words like "perhaps," "maybe," "possibly," and "try to" that only take up space and don't contribute much value to the prose. Not only does it keep the wordage down, it also keeps the reader's interest, and the editors happy.

Space-starved magazines have limited funds at their disposal with which they need to perform all the tasks that require the smooth and successful running of a periodical -- from buying contributions to paying staff salaries. To maximise value with minimum investment, it's no wonder they want to make every word count.

Just to be clear, you can't expect to use all these tips at once, or even all the time. There is such a thing as beautiful prose that will require the use of the odd metaphor and the periodic adjective. Also, these tips are not intended to turn you into some sort of a master self-editor overnight. Nor are they meant to replace the job of editing. Professional editors may work behind the scenes, unobtrusively and unstintingly, yet it is their sweat that lends the sheen of dazzle to the pages they produce. A good editor is worth his/her weight in words. And a really great one can make the difference between the Pushcart Prize and an honourable mention. But when strapped for time and with that deadline looming large, these tips can act as a starting point to rein in your verbiage.

Use these fast and easy tricks to get your word count down to the magic number that will get your masterpiece out of the slushpile and into the acceptance box. Don't let your manuscript leave home without them!

Find Out More...

Counting the Words - Victoria Grossack

Fewer Words Mean Bigger Bucks - Shaunna Privratsky

Sensible, Sensitive Sentences - Victoria Grossack

Targeting Enemy Words - Sandra Miller

Copyright © 2013 Devyani Borade
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Devyani Borade guarantees that these editing tips work! She should know; she has used them to get her fiction and nonfiction published in magazines all across the world. When she isn't being a wordsmith, she's devouring comic books and chocolates alike. Visit her website Verbolatry at http://devyaniborade.blogspot.com to contact her and read her other work.


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