Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Blogger Editor Michael Ehret: Word Watchers: Believe Because It Works

Your manuscript is big-boned. Over the years, it has picked up a few extra words here and there. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Publishers should just accept your manuscript as it is, right? Who are they to judge? All of those skinny manuscripts are airbrushed anyway.

Besides, Stephen King (not that you’re SK) has written a bloated book or two—or three—and no one minds. Yegads, he even re-released an already huge popular book (The Stand) with hundreds of words his editors originally cut put back in—so there you red-penned devils! Snap!

Let’s get serious. Your book is likely overweight and if it doesn’t lower its word count it won’t be able to compete. I don’t care if it’s a novella, it still needs to sign up for Word Watchers and get trim. Because, like Weight Watchers, Word Watchers works!

Word Watchers has developed four key principles that can help you self-edit that extra verbiage from your manuscript. These are borrowed from Weight Watchers directly, but adapted for writers.

Healthy word loss

Q. What’s healthy when it comes to word loss?

A. As trim as possible without sacrificing artistry or voice. I think of it this way in my writing: If a word can be deleted, it gets deleted.

Be religious about cutting the fat. Scour your writing for throat clearing tactics such as:
  • Introductory phrases: “The point I’m trying to make is...” Just state the point.
  • Redundancies:
    1. “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words)
    2. “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)
Use estimated or roughly, but not both. Use 4 p.m. and not in the afternoon because 4 p.m. is more specific and is clearly in the afternoon.
  • Wordiness:
    1. “Sarah knew that at her place of employment Jason was knee-deep in advance planning for the next year’s fundraising campaign.” (20 words)
    2. “Sarah knew her co-worker Jason was knee-deep in planning next year’s fundraiser.” (12 words)
Identifying Jason as her co-worker rather than writing at her place of employment saves words and is clearer. And, isn’t all planning advance planning? You can’t plan after the fact, right?

Fits into your life

Second, any Word Watchers approach must be realistic, practical, and livable. That means encouraging realistic goals. You are not likely to become Jerry B. Jenkins (the tightest writer I know) or Ernest Hemingway (renown for being succinct) straight out of the gate.

But you can set goals that will, over time, help you reach your ultimate success. Here are a few simple tricks to help you get started:
  • That: In almost every case, this word can be eliminated. Tip: Read the sentence out loud without the that. If it still makes sense, it’s gone!
  • Adverbs: Scorn them. “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” —Mark Twain For more on this go to the Write Tight Site HERE!
  • $$$: Pretend you are being charged a quarter for each word you use. It seems silly, but if you take it seriously, you’ll start competing with yourself to see how little you can pay for a chapter.

Informed choices

At Word Watchers, writers learn not only what to do, but why. If you know why, you gain the confidence to make the right choices for your writing and live by them. Here are some of the best sites I often cite:
  1. Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips
  2. Purdue University Online Writing Lab
  3. Writer’s Digest Online
Of course, there are many other such sites and places you can go to learn about the craft of tight writing. I highly recommend ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers)  as a place to get grounded not only in the craft of writing, but in the career of writing as well.

A holistic view

Finally, the Word Watchers approach must be comprehensive. Sustained word loss comes not only from learning what we’ve talked about today, but from practicing it as well. One of the best ways to practice learning to write tight is in a writer’s critique or support group—like you have here at Seekerville!

I know some of these ladies and they will, kindly and in love, kick your writing butt until you’re in shape. They’ll remind you of what you’ve learned (and of how often you’ve had to learn it). They will hold you down and sit on you until you’ve eliminated every extra word in your manuscript—and will expect you to do the same to them. With chocolate.

And if you’re a real writer—or you want to be—you’ll smile and say “Thank you, Ruthy! Can I have another?” because you know what’s good for you.


Is there a prize today? You betcha! I'm giving away two (2) free contest preparation packages. I will look at your first 15 pages (double-spaced, standard manuscript format pages) and a one-page synopsis. I will edit your submission the same way I do for my In The Edit posts on my website . I'll also look for holes in your synop and offer suggestions. Just leave a comment for the chance to win.

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the The Journal, the official magazine of ACFW. he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor/writer at his cool website/blog "Writing on the Fine Linewhere each Tuesday he takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


  1. Thanks for the tips. (4 words)

    Coffee ready at 3 a.m. (4 words)

    Nite (1 word)


  2. Contest Prep Package? YES PLEASE!!! And I know the drawings are random, but mine would be Jaxon and Reyna's story, Ruthie. Just saying. =)

    Just. Another throw away word. I like to tell new authors I'm mentoring who start sentences with "But Stephen King can..." or "Nora Roberts does..." like this:

    I know. And when your name is printed on your covers bigger than your title, you can do whatever you want too. But until then, we have to . ;-)

  3. Michael,

    How timely!

    I'm reviewing/polishing this manuscript for the umpteenth time and decided to take a Seekerville break.

    Excellent post!

    Don't remember who said it but I try to put "every word on trial for its life."

    Helen - you are fabulous! :)

  4. Funny Nancy! So true!

    And yes please on the drawing as well!

  5. While we work with word watchers, will we wequire (wrote wrong purposely) weekly weigh-ins? :-)

    I admit I am a wordy writer. Especially in my earlier works. But I've been trying to trim down.

    Seriously, I literally love writing I usually try to use as many words as I can possibly find especially all the lovely thats and ands and buts...

    Uh the contest package sounds awesome, scary, but awesome.


  6. /waving/

    [That was /waves wildly with one hand flailing about to all of Seekerville/ - see how I cut that? ;)]

    I tend to write short and add later. I've gotten way better about cutting out 'that' from the very beginning. When I print out a copy to edit, I highlight that, was, -ly, I [when writing first person] and other weasel words.

    I'm in for the drawing [though shaking just a bit].

    Thanks, Michael!

  7. I am doing the church reports and a couple need editing. I have actually cut some words, rewritten a few sentences so it reads clearer for all.
    Funny how cutting a few words, changing the structure of a sentence can produce a much cleaner read.

  8. Good morning!

    I will be using this nugget of info as I trim my ms. I'm sure I'm breaking all the rules at this point.

    Having a background in journalism where you always have to write tight helps, but no one is perfect. ;)

    Ruthy, I received your autographed book last week! Started reading it right away!

    And I got my beach package this week...way cool. Thanks Seekers!

    Sign me up for the drawing.

  9. I do not count steps, or the number of times I wash my hands, or the light bulbs in the chandelier over the escalator at Macy's, but I do count words. I suffer from wordiness and am currently being treated. My prognosis is good but it will be a long recovery. Please enter me in the contest!

  10. /snip, snip, snip/

    What? It's still too wordy? What do you mean, it's still too wordy? Don't you know that each and every one of those words dripped from my naturally creative mind onto the page, and every one of them is pure unadulterated gold? How can I cut even one, teensy, precious word?

    /snip, snip, snip/

    Ah, I understand. Get rid of dross so the gold can shine.

    Of course. How simple.

    Welcome to Seekerville, Micheal :)

  11. Welcome to Seekerville, Mike! Great to see a fellow Hoosier here. Thanks for the excellent tips on eliminating wordiness!! Now if I could just apply that to my mouth. LOL


  12. wow.

    goldmine post.

    would love to be in the drawing - not sure if i've anything worthy of Mike's time and consideration.

    thanks to the Seekers and Mike for this gem of information.

  13. Helen, way to get us going in the spirit of things!

    Nancy, Dang! I meant to include just. Thanks for covering my ... well, I'll cut that word.

    KC, LOVE that trial line.

    Tina, acknowledging the problem is a great step!

    Carol, if I recall (from Afictionado writing) you are a pretty tight writer. Good tip to highlight...and easy to do, too.

    Ausjenny, churches are notorious for overwriting. I consider them a mission.

    Jennifer T, Journalism is where I first learned about tight writing. You have a good foundation.

    Susan C, treatment program? Who's your therapist? :) Maybe I know her.

    Jan, you are right, they are gold! But take a good number of them and use them in the NEXT book instead! See? No waste!

    Janet, I beg you. Please send some sweet corn! You have no idea what it's like in Colorado. They just don't do it right.

  14. DebH, Goldmine post? Wow, I do like you! You can stay. Thanks for the kind words.

  15. Michael, Great post! It's practical for a writer with a non-journalistic background. :)

    Suggestions, tips, and links--all helpful (does this count as writing tight?).

    I have a friend who's an editor who has taught me lots about cutting out the fat in my writing.

    As I'm revising my ms, I'm catching my weasel words. Yes, "just" is one of them. I found that the contests I entered with a maximum word count (like the Frasier) help me be more aware of my words, and to cut out the extra.

    Okay, definitely not writing tight here, but I am saying thanks for sharing your wisdom today!

    Please include me in the drawing!

  16. First I went on a diet. Then my dog had to go on a diet. Now you tell my I have to put my words on a diet too????


    I knew that. Really I did.
    Just like I knew about me and the dog.

    The really sad part of this is that I no longer read like an innocent reader. I read like an editor.
    I quit writing last time this happened because reading was my first love. But I had to come back to it because my brain can't turn off the stories either.

    Such a mess.

    But at least I'll be a lighter mess.

    Happy Friday, Seekerville and thanks for sharing such wisdom with us this morning, Michael.

  17. Great post! I enjoy going back and cutting out my pet words and those other unnecessary words. It always reads better when I'm done. Less is best.

  18. Thanks, Michael, for the affirmation. I have been snipping words like "was" and "had" this morning. There is a pile at my feet.

    Must print out. Put me in for the drawing.

    Peace, Julie

  19. Michael, no problem! That's one of my worst weasel words, especially in dialogue. Your post is so timely as I'm stripping my historical pretty hard for conference. I've pulled 4K words from Chapters one to twenty with twelve chapters more to go so this is really helpful. Thank you.

    Susan... being treated. You crack me up. =)

  20. Digging/Jodie: Thanks!

    Jeanne T: Weasel words ... great descriptor! Have heard it before, but always makes me laugh!

    Mary: Diet? Tell me about it! How do writers lose weight? I've heard about people who write on the treadmill...really? I cannot imagine.

    Jamie and Julie: Glad you like it!

  21. If Only I omitted the word only.... ;-)

    Please enter me. I'm setting at 101,000 words and I want to be at 80,000.

  22. If Only I omitted the word only.... ;-)

    Please enter me. I'm setting at 101,000 words and I want to be at 80,000.

  23. Thank you, Michael. This is helpful. While writing flash fiction I learned to cut to stay within a word count. I'm a wordy person and I'm editing this comment, too. The challenge is to remember this when writing a novel. I see improved flow in the story when I'm concise. Please enter me in your drawing. Thank you for being here today.

  24. Thanks for these valuable tips!
    I would LOVE to be entered in the drawing!


  25. Mike, I can't quit laughing about "Your manuscript is big-boned"!!!! OMGosh. How funny. My mom always uses that term. :) :)

    Thanks for the great post and for being with us today! Wordiness is a problem for me. I think it's especially a problem with a southern voice. I guess we just use more words to speak. (like "just"!) :)

  26. Welcome to Seekerville Michael. Great to have you here with all of this helpful advice.

    Enjoy your day.

  27. Michael, I'm a teacher for most of the year so ten months of standing/walking all day make the seatinchair time less "weighty".

  28. You notice I'm not even going into the wordiness issue since it is one of my biggest problems. Yikes

  29. Missy, even Southern writers can overcome wordiness. Glad you liked "big-boned" -- it's what I call my poor Cocker Spaniel, Taffy. Seemed to fit.

    Bridget and Gretchen: Glad to have you here today. Hope the tips help.

    Pat: Flash fiction would certainly help. That's a tough field. But I've certainly read some good stuff there and marveled at how well the writers were able to tell a story in such short form.

    Sandra: Good to be here!

  30. Michael~

    Thank you for the reminder! I first learned tight writing as a journalist. Then I worked in radio, where most of the time I had to get the point across in 90-180 words. Finally, I have been editing for years. As a result, I'm stingy with words & often have to go back to my WIP & add - description & setting mostly.

    Yet for all I have to put in, I still find plenty to take out. And I hate the word "that" with a passion. Most of the time it's unnecessary but, when it is, I'll often try to rewrite the sentence to get rid of it.

    I would love a chance at the contest prep package!

  31. Good morning, editor, Michael!! Sorry for running late. Battling the evil forces of technology this am. Arrgh.

    Terrific post.

    I am on the other side of the printed page with sparse writing I have to work to layer. Not necessarily TIGHT but I am a writer of few words as my background is in short stories.

    Thank you for the links, BTW!!

  32. Sharon and Tina: Welcome! You are never too late to the party.

    Since I'm SOTP, being a naturally tight writer (like you) is a benefit. It's so much easier to add stuff in (since I have to go back and put things in the right place anyway ...) than it is to cut any of my golden words!

  33. Hi, sorry to be late checking in today AND ON THE DAY MIKE IS HERE, TOO!!!!!!!!!!!
    Welcome to Seekerville Mike.
    I loved being on Writing on the Fine line.
    So much of this post just hits right HOME. I edit like this, cutting out redundant works, reading sentences with THAT in and out. JUST in and out. SUDDENLY in and out.
    It's amazing how often those words can be cut.
    You should also see how often you can cut SHE KNEW. It's needed sometimes, especially to establish POV but so often instead of saying....she knew he was going to reject her project....

    You can instead say....He was going to reject her project.

    That's far DEEPER in her feelings, deeper than SHE KNEW. Of course if the POV is in doubt then it sounds like HIM and his concrete plans, so it can't always be done.

  34. A twelve step program is definitely called for!!!!!!!

  35. I do run into trouble with comedy because there is a rhythm to it and sometimes that rhythm can contain less-than-tight writing. But I have to be careful not to cut the rhythm. It's tricky.
    Where as ACTION needs to be cut, cut, cut. All the DEAD words that stop the action need to go.
    I don't succeed on this but I try.

  36. Bridgett, to cut that many words you can approach it two ways.

    1) divide the book up into chapters, cut the chapters out of the manuscript, paste them on a separate document. write down the number of words in the chapter document and then, depending on how many chapters (say, twenty) and twenty thousand words have to go. One thousand words per chapter. Just start cutting until you get it pared down by 1000, paste it back in the document and cut out the next chapter.

    2) The other way, because 20,000 words is a lot, consider losing a subplot. That cuts a LOT of words really fast. Set it aside as it's own story if you want, but maybe a 'neighbor with an amputated leg who's trying to adjust to his peg' story may have to go.

  37. You could also consider combining characters. Do you have two bad guys? Eliminate one. Does your hero have brothers? Get rid of them-or get rid of all but one brother. Then have the acts of the multiple bad guys all be done by ONE bad guy. You'll be surprised how many words you'll cut.

  38. MIke,

    I agree about weighty manuscripts. We've all read them and probably all written a few.

    But how healthy is it to include backstory? I personally like it, but usually get negative reactions from critiquers. I'm a fan of literary fiction and that usually has lots of backstory (BS). What do you think?

  39. Excellent advice, Mike! Like Tina, I started out writing magazine stories and articles, so I quickly had to accept the necessity of whittling out "weedy words."

    Just. Always. Very. That. So. Well.

    And so many more!

    I also learned how to slash words while paring down longer manuscripts to fit the Heartsong Presents 45K-to-50K word count. Amazing what you can cut when you know you have to!

    But I admit, now that I'm writing longer novels, I do tend to let the words pile up. As Mary said, sometimes extra words are needed for the rhythm. Even so, I'll go back in the editing phase and tighten wherever I can. Bloated prose isn't pretty no matter the length of the book!

  40. Mary, you could give me a higher comment count if you put each sentence into it's own message ... just saying! You are RIGHT, however, about the rhythms--especially in comedy.

    Suz: Not a backstory fan. At least not as a dump. I prefer spooning it in little by little and I really prefer not having any at all in at least the first 30 pages. Why? Because at the beginning I want the story to move forward. The past slows things down. Get the reader to care about the character, however, and then, after establishing the story, you can spoon in back story. But only use what is essential for the READER to know. There is backstory you need to know as the writer, and then there's backstory the reader needs to know. Don't confuse them. Just because you find it interesting and it helped you get to know the characters doesn't mean the reader needs it. Make each word count...even in backstory.

    Myra: you got it sista! Bloated prose ain't pretty.

  41. As part of my treatment, I ran a search in my manuscript for "that" and Word stopped working; overwhelmed.

    Just kidding; I've got semicolon dropsy too.

    And exclamation point fever!

    Scalpel, please?

  42. Oy -- super advice but my heart is breaking. You want me to do away with 'just' and 'that'? Sigh -- but it's just that I write like I talk...

    With the Olympics officially starting today your words have conjured up a row of svelte books getting ready to race to the publishing line. On your mark, get set, go! :-)

  43. Michael, loved your perspective on backstory. I see so many writers throwing the baby out with the bathwater. James Scott Bell in Art of War for Writers says:

    Many new writers think the reader needs a bunch of backstory to understand who the character is and why he or she is in the opening scene. They don't. They will happily wait a long time for the background if you have a character dealing with a disturbance. But using backstory judiciously is important because it helps bond the reader with the character. Backstory deepens that bond via emotion and sympathy.

    I think if writers would treat "back story" (events prior to the novel opening) the same way they do necessary information that arises from action off the page between scenes and chapters and work it in the present with the same level of care and precision, it would do wonders for their writing. And for the reader!

    Please don't sweat the comment count. Those of us salivating for the contest prep package prize are elated a healthy chunk of the friends of Seekerville are probably too nervous to risk winning it, hehe. =)

  44. I'm so happy to meet you, Michael.

    Thanks for the tips. The first time I got a crit back, the lady told me to tighten up my writing. I've been trying to do that ever since.

    Please add my name to the contest.


    Jackie L.

  45. Kav: To paraphrase Nike, "Just do that" -- believe me, I write conversationally, too, but your writing won't sound any less 'real' without those crutch words and it will read even punchier...and we all want to speak punchier than we do, right?

    Susan C: you are cracking me up!

    Nancy: JSB is write and that little book of his is priceless in so many ways.

    Jackie: Glad to meet you.

  46. I love working with Mike. I'm out today with kids, and can't be stopping in like I'd like to, but working with Mike always makes me smile.

    He's just... Mike.

    And he's open and honest.

    Word diets. I so needed to learn to do that. It's a great self-exercise.

    But I also like to play with less formulaic writing, where the author can wax on a little. Mike and I have talked about that. I see it as lyrical.

    He probably scratches his head and says, "cut the nonsense!!!"

    I never see writing as one right, one wrong way, but a series of steps that make us better depending on the story we're telling.

    Okay, gotta run. I get to see my cousin once removed play minor league baseball tonight (in Auburn, NY) for the Vermont Lake Monsters.


    How can you not cheer for a Lake Monster????

  47. Ah Ruthy, wondered where you were dear!

    There is indeed a place for lyrical writing, but the temptation is to just say your writing is lyrical when in reality it's just big-boned. (Not your writing, of course...)

    Even lyrical writing needs to be written as economically as possible. Make sure every gorgeous, singing, golden word is carrying its own freight! If it's not, cut it!

    And if you're a beginner, save the lyrical for when you have enough butt to pull it off. Unless you're Marilynne Robinson, then, please, just write some more! Please? More more more!

  48. Ha, ha, Mary said "You could try combining characters." Which I instantly read as. Combing characters.

    Like a comb-over.

  49. I was reading posts backwards today.

    Just read Jeanne's on JUST. I keep an index card of my darlings and when I am in the editing stage I go round them up and put them in the basement and lock the door.

  50. Thanks, Michael! Great words of wisdom to add to my Keeper File. Appreciate your time with us today, and please enjoy the Georgia Peach Cobbler I've baked (served with homemade vanilla ice cream). Blessings, Patti Jo (from Georgia, of course *wink*)

  51. CatMom: How did you know Peach Cobbler is my fav? In fact, I bought a pint of Ben & Jerry's Peach Cobbler ice cream just today!

    I'd say that's more than coincidence. I'd say that's a leading of the Holy Spirit! Who'd like a bowl?

  52. WAIT A MINUTE. Still reading posts backwards. Michael, the sweet corn comment and Colorado. What was that about? I thought you were in Indianapolis.

  53. Tina: Backwards reading? Sigh ... We moved to Colorado in Aug. 2010 to take a job that has since ended. We're still here and I'm looking for another opportunity.

    Could end up back in Indiana, but not before sweet corn season is over. :)

  54. This post and all the comments reminded me of Proverbs 25:11.
    A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

    Thank you for the link about adverbs. I think they are my weasel words, and the examples in the article clarified why they are weak. Will be looking for those weaklings and replacing them with strong verbs when I start polishing and editing my current WIP.

    Thank you for the wonderful advice on how to polish our words so they shine like apples of gold in pictures of silver!

  55. WOW, we're neighbors. Well, I'm in Highlands Ranch.

  56. I think that Nancy is right--it maybe that a number of Seekerville friends are too intimidated to put their names in. I was, but now I am here--welcome! Please enter me in the contest and I hope you had a great day in Seekerville!


  57. No one should be scare of Mike. Because if he is too scary you must tell me and Ruthy and we will make him SORRY.

  58. Mike -

    Thank you for the kind words! With that particular report though - it was pretty easy thanks to Julie and Ruth's tips :D.

    Look forward to working with you again this year! [If it works out with your needs and my availability of course!]


  59. Pay no attention to Mary. Though she is right that you shouldn't be afraid of me. I am very kind.

    I am also trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

  60. Cut it out, you sound like a cross between a beagle and a boy scout.

  61. Michael,
    Thanks for the heavy-handed post with a light-hearted delivery. I do prefer kinder and gentler, especially when referring to my weight....

    Someone - Missy, I believe - mentioned Southern writers having trouble with word weight. I just finished reading Carla Stewart's Stardust and was blown away by the simple way she used words, even when dealing with heavy issues. She reminded me vaguely of how Laura Ingalls Wilder could say so much in so few words. Lovely.

    Thanks again, Michael and Seekerville!

    Becky Doughty

  62. MICHAEL ... better late, I guess!!

    WELCOME TO SEEKERVILLE AND EXCELLENT POST ... uh, and one I can certainly use as I desperately work to pare down my 50+ page novels to a manageable 350!!

    This is a keeper, my friend -- THANK YOU!


  63. I've been following Writing on the Fine Line for just a month or so, but have enjoyed it and it has taught me about cutting the unnecessary.

    I could use the "cut." Thanks.

    ginger dost solomon at gmail dot com

  64. BeckyDoughty: Carla is an excellent writer, though I have not yet read the one you refer to.

    Julie: Thanks for the kind words! My wife instructs me to add: Shouldn't you be writing?

    Ginger: Glad you enjoyed this AND Writing On the Fine Line.