Tackling Edits: How to Revise & Cut Thousands of Words to Improve Your Writing

My eyeballs hurt, a deep ache after finishing the micro-edit on The Fiddler’s Son. This latest draft is now getting some well-deserved “drawer time” as it goes off to two beta readers to help me with yet another macro-edit.

Macro-edit? Micro edit? What are these terms?

They’re actually somewhat new to me, too, but they work. As I’ve been working on polishing up this draft of The Fiddler’s Son, I’ve been reading The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell. They are her terms, and they refer to a developmental edit vs. a line edit, a big view edit vs. a word-by-word edit.

I’ve found they can actually be challenging to separate, especially without outside help. It’s why I love my writing partner, romance writer Gillian Archer, and my sister who always does a macro level beta read where she catches inconsistencies in plot and character, things that I’ve read and re-read but that Gillian and I missed in the earliest drafts.

The micro-edit level happens at the paragraph and sentence level. I enjoy the macro-edit better but feel like I’m better at the micro-edit, which is absolutely the practical English teacher side of me showing up. I can see the repetition of thought in phrases and sentences that ultimately say the same thing in different ways, the redundancy of multiple adjectives, the annoying (and unnecessary) participials that weaken a sentence.

Words get cut during both macro and micro-editing, but this post is all about tips for editing at the micro-level. And, it’s not just about cutting your word count. It’s about making your writing tighter, stronger, more interesting to read.

Steps for Editing at the Micro-Level and Cutting Words

In my micro-edit revision process of The Fiddler’s Son, my initial final draft had 95543 words. By the end of my micro-edit, I had 94081, for a difference of 1462.

Rather than tackling the whole manuscript for everything at one time, I tackled this word by word and went through the manuscript multiple times (hence the aching eyeballs).

We all have words and phrases that we tend to fall back on and over-use. There are also common phrases and words that should be cut or rewritten to show rather than tell.

The first step is to discover what to look for in your manuscript.

1) Make a list of your over-used words and phrases

To start, make a list of words/phrases that you can tighten up. Chuck Palahniuk wrote a super helpful article on removing all “thought” words. Add these to your list of words to look for. Here’s another article with some common redundant phrases that you might use.

Once you’ve got a list of phrases, open up your manuscript and do a search/find. Look for these words and phrases, and note how many times they appear.

If you’ve used a word or phrase hundreds and hundreds of times, take note. Even if you’ve used a phrase twenty or thirty times, add it to your list. I found “in front of” twenty-nine times and got it down to thirteen which makes for better, tighter writing.

2) Evaluate your manuscript to create your own special list of words you tend to repeat

Next, open up your manuscript. Then, go to a random word cloud generator tool. Plug 3-4 chapters at a time into the word cloud.

It’ll return visual images of the words you use the most. It only returns single words, not phrases, and often they will be your character’s names, so look for the other words.

Add the “big” words in the word cloud to your list.

In my word cloud analysis, the words I tended to repeat were: know, back, again, about, even, just, like, think, going, so, now, and about.

Next, go to your manuscript and do a search for these words. Make a note on your word list as to how many times they appear.

I still remember in my very first book, The Overlander’s Daughter, I used “just” over 800 times!! In this manuscript, it appeared 319 times. That’s better since I’m aware that I tend to throw it in for no reason, but I still overused it in this book and had to add it to my list.

In this manuscript, “know” was one of my nemeses. I used it almost 500 times. What? This was not okay.

3) Tackle your manuscript and start revising word by word, page by page

Start with your word list. Do a search for the worst offender and start at chapter one.

Go through the entire manuscript and find every time you’ve used that word and either replace it, cut that line, or revise completely to expand or show more. Often, I find that when I use a word repetitively in a scene, the scene is, well, repetitive (shocking I know), and I could cut whole lines of dialogue or internal thoughts.

For my revision, I started with the word know

As I read through every single instance where I used it, I evaluated if I needed it at all. If not? I revised by cutting it, tightening up phrasing, combining sentences, and really drilling down what I needed to include. I didn’t revise every one of them to “show” the knowing as Mr. Palahniuk recommends though I did do that with a handful.

Once I finished with know, I tackled the next word or phrase until I went through all the offenders

I also found that I used have to almost a hundred times. Again, I went through the entire manuscript looking for every single have to.

As I revised and repeatedly went through the manuscript, I also looked for and tightened up the following:

  • dialogue – tightened up repetitiion, read it out loud, made sure each character “sounded” like themselves
  • revised/cut adverbs which are -ly words, so “spoke softly” became “whispered”
  • looked for weak constructions like the to be verb + -ing verb, so “was sitting” became “sat”
  • cut unnecessary back story or info dumps that didn’t move the story forward

Because I went through the manuscript searching for every word on my list one at a time, I ultimately read through the entire thing multiple times, but I was only looking at it from the sentence paragraph level. I wasn’t looking at the entire story arc or character development which is super helpful for a micro-edit.

I won’t lie. This is tedious, boring work, BUT my manuscript is so much stronger for it.

Yeah, but isn’t this what an editor does?

Yes, this is exactly what an editor does, but before I send my manuscript to my editor, I send it to beta readers. I want to send them the best work that I can, so they can focus on the story and offer feedback on the overall development of my characters and narrative arc.

I don’t want them to get distracted by repetitive words, phrases, or thoughts. I want them to keep reading for the story.

My editor will make more corrections and offer suggestions. I’m sure she’ll find more words or phrases to cut and fix. But she’ll only do that after I’ve made this book as good as I possibly can. And, my editor also charges by the word. Do I want to pay her to read extra words that she’ll cut anyway? Nope.

Doing this work and taking the time to do it makes me a better writer. It improves my books and stories, and that makes the aching eyeballs worth it.

It will make you a better writer, too.

Final note: I shared an Instagram post with some of these strategies. If you’re on Instagram, you can save it and come back to it when you’re ready to revise.

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