Develop the Killing Instinct Part II: Fine-Tuning with a Jack-Knife — Pamela Mytroen

In Part I of “Develop the Killing Instinct” I suggested writers use a sword to slash a large volume of words and distill the piece into one key sentence. This method slims a piece down to its purpose, allowing no extra fat, which editors appreciate. Only then may the writer pull out the jack-knife to trim the final ten percent of the words. Following are some tiny cuts that add up to several words: 

  • Slice out taglines. “He said” does not need to be tacked on to every line of dialogue. If each character is distinguished, their dialogue will define who is speaking. If George, for example, always interrupts, or Mary always nags, and Johnny always says, “Ummm . ..” then the reader will understand who is speaking.
  • Cut out pronouns, especially in dialogue, such as: “Don’t feel like eating today?” instead of, “You don’t feel like eating today?” or “Couldn’t help myself” instead of “I couldn’t help myself.”
  • Core out unnecessary instances of that. For example, the following three sentences were originally from Part I of this article (they’ve been slain), but when I first wrote the article, I found that three times. Can you find them below? Are these modifiers necessary to the meaning?

Another reason that word count matters is for effective writing. Slashing words from a manuscript is an exercise that all writers should do because it helps them discover the key thought that they want to keep and support.

  • Use dialogue to paint a picture of the characters in a scene, instead of lengthy paragraphs of description. As the saying goes, “A picture paints a thousand words.”
  • Slash out as many adverbs as possible from your writing. These ‘ly’ modifiers seldom change the meaning.

After you have used your sword to pare an article down to its clearly defined theme, and you’ve eliminated a few words with your jack-knife, your writing may still contain some extra phrases. Though they may be elegant, they need to go. You’ve already chopped and carved up your piece, so go on, be brave and “kill those darlings.” Sometimes murder is the only way to keep your writing alive. 

“The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words.” Proverbs 10:19 (The Message).

It’s your turn. Practise writing tight and submit  your work:

  • Check the posted word count under “Submission Guidelines” on the Fellowscript link and see if you can turn in a piece within the guidelines.
  • Try writing flash fiction.
  • Take a devotional writing course. Learning to write under a brief word count is a skill that can be applied across every genre. At Inscribe, see Workshops and Courses under the Events link for Marcia Laycock’s online devotional writing course.


Exec-Pam-Mytroen-2Pamela is an “English as an Additional Language Instructor” and “Language Assessor” in Saskatchewan. She loves baking, reading, and spending time with her family, which has grown to include a sweet grandson. She writes for her local newspaper and, as Acquisitions Editor for Fellowscript, she enjoys working with writers to see their ideas in print. Contact her at

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