Trimming and Toning Your Manuscript

By Michael Ehret

Your manuscript is likely big-boned. I know mine is. Over the years, your MS has picked up a few extra words here and there. But that shouldn’t be a problem. All of those skinny manuscripts are airbrushed anyway.

Besides, Stephen King (not that you’re him) 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!

But seriously, your book is likely overweight and if it doesn’t lower its word count it won’t be able to compete. Time to trim and tone your book.

Weight Watchers, which helps you trim and tone  your body, has four key principles that can be adapted to help you self-edit that extra verbiage from your manuscript.

Principle 1: 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: If a word can be deleted, it gets deleted.

Cut the fat. Scour your writing for:

  • Introductory phrases: “The point I’m trying to make is…”
  • Redundancies:
    1. “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words) “Estimated” and “roughly” are redundant, as are “p.m.” and “afternoon“.
    2. “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)
  • 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)

Principle 2: Fits into your life

Any approach at trimming your manuscript must be practical and livable. That means realistic goals. You are not likely to become Ernest Hemingway (renown for being succinct) straight out of the gate.

But you can set goals that will help you. Here are a few tricks:

  • That/Very: In almost every case, these words can be eliminated. Keep only the ones that add clarity or help with sentence rhythm.
  • Adverbs: Scorn them. “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” — Mark Twain
  • $$$: Pretend you are being charged a quarter for each word. If you take it seriously, you’ll start competing with yourself to pay less each time you write.

Principle 3: Informed choices

You need to learn not only how to cut your manuscript, but also why. If you know why, you gain the confidence to make the right choices for your writing. Here are some of the websites I often consult:

  1. Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips
  2. Purdue University Online Writing Lab
  3. Writer’s Digest Online

I highly recommend 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.

Principle 4: A holistic view

Finally, your approach must be comprehensive. Sustained word loss comes from practicing these and other tips.

One of the best ways to practice tight writing is in a writer’s critique group.

A proper critique group 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—and will expect you to do the same to them. With chocolate.

Michael Ehret loves to play with words as a Marketing Communications Writer for CHEFS Catalog and as a freelance editor at Ehret is the former editor of the ACFW Journal and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

A Day in the Life of Author, Melissa Jagears

by Elizabeth Ludwig
Melissa Jagears
Melissa Jagears is a stay-at-home mother on a tiny Kansas farm with a fixer-upper house. Her passion is to help Christian believers mature in their faith and judge rightly. Learn more at
Hello, Melissa! Welcome to Novel Rocket. Since this is your first time to visit, why don’t we start by letting readers know what encouraged you to start writing? 
The need to actively use my brain. Staying home with my first baby, keeping house, and reading required little intellectual exercise. I decided to write before my brain atrophied, and boy, I didn’t realize how much mental exercise I was getting myself into! 
LOL! I understand. So then, what is the most difficult part of writing for you, or was when you first started on your novel journey? 
The rough draft. I hate the worry that nothing I’m going to write will be worthwhile. I procrastinate so badly with this part. I have no idea why though since after I get going, I get in a really nice groove and I generally like everything I write. I think it’s plain fear. Being in the #1k1h Facebook group helps during rough draft times though, because I KNOW I can easily write over 1000 words an hour. So if I post that I’m writing and I come back with nothing because I decided to look at some stupid buzzfeed article on which celebrities looks like their dog (or something else that stupid) I look like a failure—and I hate being a failure. So do I choose to be a failure with word count or failure with a story???? Word count is easier to win at—tricking myself into productivity. 
Do you put yourself into your books/characters? 
My Meyers-Briggs personality is the rarest female personality, so I often find out exactly what I /think that others think “no one would do” when my critiquers flag something my characters do that they think is strange…’s almost always something I pulled from my own character! But yes, I do it sometimes on purpose, sometimes on accident. 
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)? 
At first, when I was in a critique group, I took every suggestion because I realized I didn’t know enough. I know people say “you’ll lose your voice” doing that, but really, what voice did I have to lose with stinky craft skills? It’s not like a voice can truly disappear, though it’s muted in the beginning process. It’s like learning to sing. You follow the notes on the page first and learn to do that, then realize there are other directions for things such as dynamics and so you add those, then you get familiar enough with music you can sight read without the help of an instrument or a conductor. Once you have the ability to sing music as expected without much prompting and know the underlying music principles and are familiar with a range of compositions, one day you’ll realize, “I should be able to cobble something together myself that’s new and different, but skillful.” But just because you sing by rote and under instruction for years doesn’t mean your voice is like everyone else’s, and once you have down the basics of music, then you can create your own style. 
My first book I abandoned halfway through the critique process because after months of critting, I learned so much I realized I needed to write it all over again with all those new skills I learned. But I also decided to abandon that genre, so I wrote another book and did better, but I still took almost every suggestion because I had a lot to learn. The third book was when I felt like I came into my own enough to start ignoring things if it didn’t fit my vision. I did go back three novels later and rewrite that second book once I figured I had the skills to save it. That’s what sold. 
Tell us a little about your latest release.
Bethany House, 2014
My newest comes out in September. This whole series is about mail-order bride mishaps. Not necessarily between the hero and heroine, but there were so many “fun” problems I read about in historical accounts, I wanted to highlight how very rarely mail-order marriages worked. So this one is about a mail-order bride who comes willing, but finds that things beyond her control keep her from marrying as soon as she steps off the train….and Eliza doesn’t like being out of control! 
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer? 
I learn what I do and do not like! Before as a reader, I might have just thought “I didn’t like that one so much” but now I can dissect it. So if it’s really good, I dissect it for “why did that impress me so much” and once I discover why, I jot it down or if it’s something I really don’t like, I figure out why it bothered me. Then in future plotting work, I take a look at those notes and make sure I don’t do what I don’t like because it’s “easy” or if it fits the story, I work to add in those things that were impressive. 
Do you have any parting words of advice? 
Find an honest and “harsh” critiquer who’ll follow you into publishing land who won’t let you get too big for your britches. I’ve read works by favorite authors that I wonder how they got away with stuff that wasn’t great—if favorite authors can turn out something that’s not very good, there is never a point I’ll be assured of never doing it either. I sometimes wonder if publishers allow things like that to go through because of schedule, “they’ll buy it anyway,” and not wanting to ruffle feathers. I’d rather my critique partner tell me ahead of time I’m working on a dud. 
Melissa’s novella, “Love by the Letter”, is always free, but right now, in the month leading up to A Bride in Store’s release, A Bride for Keeps is on sale for 2.99 – Don’t miss it!
Elizabeth Ludwig is the award-winning author of the EDGE OF FREEDOM
series from Bethany House Publishers. She is an accomplished speaker
and teacher, often attending conferences and seminars where she lectures
on editing for fiction writers, crafting effective novel proposals, and
conducting successful editor/agent interviews. Along with her husband
and children, she makes her home in the great state of Texas. To learn
more, visit

Just In Case You Haven’t Seen This Video

by James L. Rubart

Since you’re a writer, I’m guessing you’re one of the 12 million plus who have seen Weird Al’s parody of the song, Blurred Lines and tribute to linguists. (I was so tempted to write “your”.)

But just in case you haven’t …

James L. Rubart is the best-selling, and Christy award
winning author of six books, including his just released novel, Spirit Bridge. During the day he runs
Barefoot Marketing, which helps authors make more coin of the realm. In his
free time he dirt bikes, hikes, water skis and take photos.  No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his
amazing wife and two sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young
enough to water ski like a madman. More at

7 Christian Classics that Could Not Be Published in Today’s Christian Market

I guest posted at Speculative Faith a couple years back, and my article Why Fiction is the Wrong Vehicle for Theology garnered some lively, if not predictable, responses. One of my favorite comments was from Melissa Ortega (read it HERE) in which she rattled off “classic novels” that DO contain some heavy theological elements. She writes: 

There are few books that sermonize more than Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or his Hunchback of Notre Dame. Charles Dickens sermonizes a great deal in A Christmas Carol. G.K. Chesterton’s Napolean of Notting Hill is as Free Will vs. Destiny type of story as one can get. And who can forget his Man Who Was Thursday? with its sermon at the end on becoming, ourselves, the Accuser? The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is an inside-out sermon that preaches on a multitude of sins….from Hell’s point of view, of course. And the Great Divorce steps on very, very specific toes every third paragraph at least.

It’s a great comment. While Melissa is spot on about theological themes in classic Christian lit, her observations also show how far we’ve come in what we call “Christian fiction.” 

Many of the books we consider Christian classics could NOT be published in today’s Christian market. 

I remember the first time I stumbled upon this phenomenon. I’d just started to pursue a writing career and wanted to familiarize myself with the Christian market. Some of the writers I respected often referenced Flannery O’Connor. I’d never read her and decided to purchase a collection of her short stories. The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It stunned me. Why? 

***Spoiler alert*** 

It ends when a shallow, phony Christian woman is faced with her sin — and possibly converted — by being murdered by a psychopath. The Misfit, an escaped convict, shoots her three times, puts the gun down, casually cleans his glasses and says, “she would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The End. 


The story seemed so unlike anything I’d read thus far labeled “Christian fiction.” Its “theology” was front and center, but the imagery was so stark and the ambiguity so thick, there’s no way it could find footing amidst the squeaky clean, predictable, bonnets and romance fare that now dominated the Christian market.

(A cursory discussion of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and possible interpretation in THIS Wikipedia article.)

Anyway, Melissa’s comment made me think of other Christian classics that would have a hard time being published in today’s market. Here’s seven of them: 

  • The Man Who was Thursday is sprinkled with mild expletives like “go to hell” (ch. 9), “damn it all” (ch. 2), and my favorite, “You great fat, blasted, blear-eyed, blundering, thundering, brainless, Godforsaken, doddering, damned fool!” (ch. 10). Such language would never see the light of day in Christian fiction. (Note: Christians abhorrence of even mild language in their fiction is evidence of deeply flawed theology.) 
  • A Christmas Carol‘s primary “biblical” lessons are delivered by… ghosts! And everyone knows that ghosts are really demons, right? 
  • The Great Divorce occurs in a sort of purgatorial limbo. But Christians do not believe purgatory is biblical or that souls in hell might get a second chance to glimpse heaven. So strike this as “biblical.” 
  • The Lord of the Rings — Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, “…called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” But despite the author’s stated intent, Wood affirms that “Tolkien’s work is not self-evidently Christian.” In fact, many eschew Tolkien’s classic as “Christian” on the grounds that it employs magic, sorcery, etc. Poor Gandalf. 
  • Dante’s Inferno is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Not only might the horrific imagery find resistance in today’s market, once again, purgatory is a stumbling block for evangelicals. I’m afraid old Dante must ply his wares in the “secular” classics. 
  • A Wrinkle in Time, though containing many “Christian themes,” has been opposed by many Christian parents on the grounds that it teaches New Age philosophy. And, oh, it has witches. 
  • Flannery O’Connor’s works — Not just language, but the incongruous imagery and ambiguity. Like Hazel Motes, lead character in her first novel Wise Blood, a traveling evangelist who spreads the gospel of “anti-religion,” lives with a prostitute (whom he discovers is a nymphomaniac), wraps himself in barbed wire as penance, blinds himself, before killed by an arresting police officer. Signet originally advertised the novel as “A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption.” Ha! Try selling that to today’s mainstream Christian readers.

So… what’s happened? Why has the Christian market changed so

much? Or is it Christian culture that has changed? And can you think of other “Christian classics” that would find a hard time being published in today’s Christian market?


Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the
rockin’ Rachelle
of Books & Such
. Mike’s novels include The TellingThe
, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly
released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow
him on Facebook and Twitter.