Change verbs from passive to active voice

This is the third and final post in a series about ways to cut word count. In “6 Easy Ways to Cut Word Count” and “5 Ways to Cut Wordiness,” we discussed moderating weasel words, dialogue tags and back story, and scaling down descriptions of small movements, filter words and repetition.

There is still more you can do to reduce word count: write in the active voice.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) states that:

Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.

When writing in the passive voice: 1) the subject is vague; 2) the subject appears after the object; 3) the use of verb phrases and linking verbs (helping verbs) such as was, there was, there are or there is are required.

For example:

  1. The book was put on the shelf. [Note] We don’t know who put the book on the shelf.
  2. The book was put on the shelf by John. [Note] The subject is at the end of the sentence.
  3. There are just a few books remaining.

The active voice doesn’t require a linking verb or a verb phrase:

  1. John put the book on the shelf. (2 less words than above)
  2. Just a few books remain. (2 less words than above)

Change verbs from progressive to simple tense

The progressive tense shows continuous action. This action presents with verbs like begin/began or start/started, or with verb phrases like to be, plus a verb participle such as watching or watched.

When you write in simple tense you put the focus on the active verb and can eliminate the helping verb, which is usually was. Notice how much stronger the action is in the revised sentences:

  1. He was watching the game. [Revised] He watched the game.
  2. He started to wash the car. [Revised] He washed the car.

Avoid using empty expressions

Another way to reduce word count is to eliminate empty expressions. These examples state the obvious:

In my opinion
I believe
It seems
From my viewpoint
I recall
Needless to say

In a way [ahem], they lessen a statement’s impact. These read well in dialogue if this is a characteristic a writer wishes to portray in their character. Otherwise, the meaning of a sentence does not change when they are left out.

Tight writing helps you get published

Focus on the concept of more information and less filler; tight writing. Anything less than this will remain unread by an agent. You’ll know you’ve achieved this when not one word can be removed without changing the meaning. Make every word count.

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. ~Thomas Jefferson

Suggestions for other ways to cut word count are encouraged.

Photo Credit: Craig Ward

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5 Ways to Cut Wordiness

by Davina on June 1, 2013


Cut your novel down to size

In 6 Easy Ways to Cut Word Count, we discussed editing out weasel words. This post covers additional strategies for self-editing.

1. Moderate back story

Cut writing that doesn’t move the story forward. To hook readers — within the first 10 pages — the story should begin near the inciting incident. In the early stages of a novel, writing should be infused with foreshadowing of future events, not history.

Too much history at the onset prevents the development of a relationship with characters or an interest in what is at stake. Early chapters acquaint the reader with characters’ mannerisms and lifestyle. Introduce back story gradually, through dialogue, which is also an excellent way to show rather than tell.

2. Dialogue tags: the less saids the better

Dialogue tags, such as he said and she said, identify who is speaking. It’s not necessary to use them after each statement. Start new conversation with a few dialogue tags to assert the reader. After that, use tags when it’s not obvious who’s speaking.

In my draft Deep Into Midnight I used action and thoughts to identify the speaker, rather than writing said every time.

In this excerpt, a young girl in distress walks into the donut shop while Colleen is wiping the counter.

Colleen was still wiping the counter and the girl was staring at her, frowning.
“Can I help you?” Colleen was afraid to ask.
“Got a phone I can use?” The girl glanced at the phone behind the counter, and then back at Colleen.
Colleen forgot about wiping the counter. This girl was going to be a handful.
“A little young to be drinking aren’t you?” Colleen ignored her request.

3. Scale down small movements

  • She reached over and wiped a tear from her daughter’s cheek. [Revised] She wiped a tear from her daughter’s cheek.
  • He turned and walked to the door. [Revised] He walked to the door.
  • Ellen doesn’t need to have her jaw drop and her eyes widen. It could be enough to say she is shocked.

4. Reduce filter words

Filter words influence the reader’s perspective through the character’s viewpoint.

  • He saw his horse gallop through the field. [Revised] The horse galloped through the field.
  • She felt her pulse quicken. [Revised] Her pulse quickened.
  • She heard ringing in her ears. [Revised] Her ears were ringing.

5. Redundancy: avoid saying something twice

  • Something to consider from Garth Stein: “Go through your book and cut the last sentence of every paragraph.” After reviewing his manuscript, he realized he didn’t trust himself or his reader. Although he had accomplished his writing goal, throughout his manuscript he had made repetitive statements to reinforce various points.
  • Avoid repetition. Ellen’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened, or she was surprised. Choose one description.

Stay tuned for the final post of this series, offering more ways to cut the word count in your manuscript.

Do you have a habit of wordiness?
What other ways can you reduce word count?

Photo Credit: Gaeia

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6 Easy Ways to Cut Word Count

by Davina on May 1, 2013

Delete the weasel words

Weasel Words Wordle

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines weasel words as words that are “intentionally ambiguous [with a double meaning] or misleading, esp. as part of a sentence that deliberately avoids commitment.”

In Stewart Chaplin’s short story Stained Glass Political Platform, they were referred to as “words that suck the life out of the words next to them…”

Weasel words are words that weasel themselves into your writing. They are vague and passive. Eliminate weasel words and reduce word count by more than ten per cent.

How to identify weasel words

A variety of words and phrases fall under the category of weasel words.

1. Two adjectives in a row

For example:
She had a tiny little dog for a pet. [Revised] She had a little dog for a pet.
A dark shadowy figure approached. [Revised] A shadowy figure approached.

2. Pronoun redundancy

For example:
Rita was right and I lost the bet, since Rita and I spent the next month apartment hunting.
[Revised] Rita was right and I lost the bet, since we spent the next month apartment hunting.

3. Two prepositions in a row

For example:
The dog leaped up onto the sofa. [Revised] The dog leaped onto the sofa.
She showed up with him. [Revised] She arrived with him.

4. Unnecessary adverbs

In the post Editing with Adverbs read about alternatives to words such as really, quickly, always, truly, very, fairly and often.

For example:
It is already implied that they are involved. [Revised] It is implied that they are involved.
It is quite difficult to break an addiction. [Revised] It is difficult to break an addiction.

5. Reduce the use of that

In the post A Simple Explanation About Using “That” learn how ninety per cent of the time that can be left out of a sentence without changing the meaning.

For example:

Suffice it to say that there were errors in her essay. [Revised] Suffice it to say, there were errors in her essay.
The book that I just bought is a bestseller. [Revised] The book I just bought is a bestseller.

6. Redundant description

For example:

He crawled across the floor on his hands and knees. [Note] What else would you crawl on?
The meeting started at 10 a.m. in the morning. [Note] We know that a.m. infers morning.
The child shrugged her shoulders. [Note] What else would you shrug?
She smiled happily. [Note] Smiling indicates happiness.
They whispered quietly. [Note] Whispering is quiet.

The self-editing process

Weasel words divert the reader’s attention and convey more information than necessary. Recognize when you are attached to a phrase or passage you have written. Don’t be afraid to “kill your darlings”.

When you comb through your novel and cut unnecessary words, you will streamline the reading and sharpen your writing practice.

Stay tuned for more suggestions about how to cut your novel’s word count in upcoming posts.

What techniques work for you when you self-edit?
What are your weasel word pet peeves?

Image Credit: Davina Haisell, via

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Stick Your Neck Out Farther or Further?

by Davina on April 1, 2013

Farther versus furtherConfused about when to use farther or further?

Do you find yourself sticking your neck out over commonly confused words? Well, after you read this post you will have a better understanding of when — or why — you may choose to use farther or further in a sentence.

What is the difference between farther and further?

When you look up the word “farther” in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary you are referred to “further” for the detailed definition. For centuries, these two words have been used interchangeably.

However, popular use and The Associated Press Stylebook demonstrate that “farther” should be used when referring to tangible physical distance, and the more abstract “further” should be used when referring to metaphorical or figurative distance, and an extension of time or degree.

Examples of farther and further used in a sentence

Here are some examples of “farther” and “further” being used in a sentence:

The athlete ran farther than his coach expected, but his efforts further exhausted him.

That statement couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Our team will further investigate this mystery.

The planet Earth is farther away from the sun than Venus.

Confusion over farther versus further rule

We’ve created a rule, which in most cases seems simple enough. One way to remember when to use “farther” (to refer to physical distance) is to recognize that the word includes the word “far.” Yet, this rule does not always work because sometimes it’s difficult to know if you are speaking about physical distance.

For example: The student advanced further in her reading assignment than her classmates.

Figuratively speaking, you could use “further” to indicate an advancement in time or degree, while you might also understand this to mean that physically, in number of pages, she advanced “farther” in her reading assignment.

“No one misuses farther for further, and you’re safe with further provided that you don’t apply it to distance. Several usage critics have even predicted that further will eventually absorb the meaning ‘more distant,’ driving farther into extinction.” (Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985)

Regarding the title of this post, you may now recognize that depending on the context, either word would be the correct choice.

Depending on the context, how might you rephrase the title of this post?
Do you have a preference for either farther or further?
Can you think of another example where the rule may be ambiguous?

Image Credit: Desktop Nexus

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Moving Mountains with Writer’s Block

by Davina on March 1, 2013

Mount Gardner View

Thoughts on writer’s block

Opinions about writer’s block vary. Some say writer’s block doesn’t exist while others suffer through it.

I’ve read about causes of writer’s block, such as fear of failure or perfectionism, and solutions such as taking a break or reading a book.

Before you claim to have writer’s block, consider what is going on for you. What are you resisting? Are you tired? Hungry, perhaps? Impatient? Afraid of success?

This label is a mental block to creative thinking. Instead of trapping yourself behind a label that becomes more prominent when you focus on it, be curious about what is happening instead of the writing that is not happening.

A mountain of attitude

Last January, I was anxious to move from my cozy apartment on Bowen Island to the island’s Cove, closer to amenities. Living on an island with rolling hills and steep terrain, without a vehicle can be challenging.

Weeks prior to moving, every time I hiked up that mountain with my mail or my groceries, I wondered how many more times?! I dragged myself along, laboriously and breathless, feeling like the mountain had grown and frustrated because what had once been an enjoyable hike had become an imposition. You could say that I was lugging more than my groceries on my back. Who knew a bad attitude could weigh so much.

Nonetheless, I was surprised by how quickly I scaled the incline, despite feeling weighed down. This didn’t add up, but it made me curious. On some level, I wanted it to be hard because it gave me something to push against.

The mud and the muck

When I delved into my curiosity I realized the tough climb had nothing to do with exertion and everything to do with attitude. Obviously, the hill hadn’t grown and after more than a year of this practice, I was fit for the climb. That’s how effective attitude is. I was feeling physically exhausted while under the influence of the heaviness of my mind.

When you’re a writer, the world you create in your mind often seems more real than the world you live in. The lines between fantasy and reality can muddy and suck you in. Despite the muddiness, a writer’s journey is all about breaking new ground and celebrating the breakthroughs.

As my friend Lorraine Ashdown, photographer and literary specialist says:

“The paths aren’t always clear but they are well worth trodding…even when there is mud and muck.”

Are you ready to roll up your sleeves?

Photo Credit: Davina Haisell

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20-Question Restaurant Apostrophe Quiz

by Davina on February 1, 2013

Restaurant Apostrophe Quiz

Which restaurant names use an apostrophe?

This quiz will test your attention to detail. You could also use this as a fact-checking exercise.

If you want to take on the fact-checking challenge, visit these restaurant’s websites to determine whether their name uses a registered trademark symbol (®) or a trademark symbol (™).*

A full list of the restaurant names will appear after you have completed the quiz. Correct answers will be indicated with a green check mark, while incorrect answers will be indicated with a red X.

Notes about registered trademarks

A trademark symbol means that a name has been filed for registration. Once the process is complete, the ™ symbol is replaced with an ® symbol.

Note that just because the logo on the website appears with a registered trademark symbol, that doesn’t mean that the name itself has been trademarked.

Names and logo designs are filed for registration separately and thus a name may not be trademarked at the same time as the logo design. As a result, on occasion you will encounter a logo that uses an ® symbol, while the company name is still using a ™ symbol, prior to its registration process being finalized.

Fact-checking is one of the services I offer in my proofreading business. If you decide to take on the fact-checking challenge you will see how time-consuming it can be, and why my clients choose to outsource their proofreading to me. But in the meantime, have some fun with this quiz!

Test yourself with the restaurant apostrophe quiz

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.

Please choose the correct option from below; with or without an apostrophe.


How did you do?
Did you try the fact-checking exercise?
Do you find yourself noticing street or window signs that use the apostrophe incorrectly?

Image Credit: Davina Haisell

*Additional fact-checking resources are the Canadian Intellectual Property Office and the United States Patent and Trademark Office. These resources are recommended as websites are not always the most up-to-date reference.

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Don’t Monkey with Grammar: Comprise vs Compose

January 3, 2013

The difference between comprise and compose To help you understand when to use comprise and compose correctly in a sentence, let’s first look at their definitions. To comprise means “to contain, to be made up of, to consist of or to include.” In essence, you would say that the whole comprises the parts. To compose […]

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Book Review: The Narcissist at Work

November 17, 2012

Peace of mind on the job? “Let’s face it: having to work closely with someone whose nasty ways make you feel like crap isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Interacting with these people at work is something we all suck up and do, but many of us don’t know how to neutralize the toxic […]

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Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!

October 18, 2012

Shedding a little light on proofreading I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of months as a number of editing and proofreading projects have kept me busy. Even the writing of my novel has had to pause. I’m looking forward to revisiting it this weekend. This has been a very good year and […]

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Apostrophe Dispels Confusion Over Whose vs Who’s

August 15, 2012

Whose commonly confused with who’s A homophone is a word that sounds identical to another word, but whose meaning is different. When you’re talking about whose and who’s, however, they’re not typical homophones because who’s is not a word. The apostrophe identifies it as a contraction for who is, who has, who was, etc. A […]

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