Unclutter Your Writing by Alicia Dean

My life is filled with clutter (my house, my schedule, my mind), but I do my best to take the clutter out of writing, in my own works and in works I receive from others. Whether it’s through submissions I receive or published books I read, or even books I write, I discover many words used in stories that are not needed and only slow the pacing and impact.

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Some of the most common words are: very, about, really, prepositional phrases (at him, at her, to her, over at her, etc), adverbs, kind of.

If you work at removing these culprits from your stories, you will most likely find that, in the process, you discover better, stronger, more vivid words.

Examples: (Many of these might not be well-worded, but some are taken directly from submissions I’ve received. They could be improved in other ways, but for now, we’re focusing on unnecessary words)

  • His eyes were very hypnotizing. (Very is a lazy, unspecific word. Something like this would work better: His steel blue eyes glittered, hypnotizing in their intensity. ‘Very’ is okay in dialogue or even internal dialogue if you are trying to emphasize something, but it’s best to avoid it as a qualifier)
  • They arrived at the café after about ten minutes. (‘About’ makes the sentence a little clunky, and is it crucial to mention that it was ‘about’ ten minutes?)
  • She had a really hard time deciding. (‘Really is also a lazy, unneeded word. Better: Indecision tore at her. Should she go or not?)
  • In a situation where there are only two people in the scene, you can delete ‘at him’ type of prepositional phrases: She stared across the table at him. (Delete ‘at him’ – Who else would she be staring at? (and yes, I realize I ended my question in a preposition, but sometimes, that just works J)
  • He moved quickly across the room. (Find a stronger word for ‘moved’ and you won’t need ‘quickly’ – ‘darted across the room’ ‘shot across the room’ ‘vaulted across the room’)
  • The day was kind of gloomy. (‘Kind of’ doesn’t add anything to the sentence and makes it sound clunky. The sentence is more active and immediate if you delete the phrase – The sentence is also telling and could be reworded something like: ‘Gray clouds hung low in the sky, casting a gloom over the day’)
  • Margaret climbed into the car and drove silently home. (Delete ‘silent.’ Margaret is the only one in the car, so we’ll assume she was ‘silent.’ Admittedly, I sometimes talk to myself in the car, but that makes me seem a little crazy, and we don’t want our characters to seem crazy, so we leave it as ‘understood’ that she was silent) J

NOTE: Filter words such as ‘knew’, ‘thought’, ‘suddenly’, ‘began’, ‘started’, etc, are also ‘unnecessary’ but that’s an entirely different post. Keep an eye out, I see a ‘filter word’ post in my future. J

I have edited many wonderful stories from talented authors in the past. Some have certain strengths over others. I have a few authors who write so tightly that when I am looking for a way to shorten a scene in order to make it fit in a particular area (such as for an excerpt or to shorten to prevent ‘trailing lines’ at the end of a chapter), I find it impossible to trim a single word. Do you write that tightly?

Here’s a way to test yourself. Take one of your scenes and attempt to delete 10 words, but only words that are truly unnecessary. Before you delete the word, make sure that it doesn’t negatively impact the scene/meaning, and that it actually sounds better with the word removed. If you’d like, try it and let me know how it goes by leaving a comment. Keep in mind, sometimes getting rid of a weak word will not mean fewer words, but it might actually increase your word count , especially if you try ‘showing’ in place of ‘telling.’ (as was the case in a few examples above) It doesn’t matter whether or not you end up adding extra words once you delete the 10 unneeded ones, the purpose is to find words that do not add to your story and replace them with words that do.

Good luck! I look forward to hearing your results.

27 thoughts on “Unclutter Your Writing by Alicia Dean

  • I try to avoid clutter words and phrases, but once in a while one slips through. Thanks for putting them in a nice list – now I can double check as I’m polishing my manuscript!

  • I find concrete tips to apply to my writing helpful. And reminders are always needed because as writers, we often get caught up in the story and almost never see our own “special” craft issues.

  • I, too, live in a cluttered world. 🙂 Your list of unnecessary words is excellent. I’m going to read through my current ms with your list and examples in mind. Time to de-fluter!

  • Brag Alert! My last manuscript came in at just over 30,000 words. My editor (not you this time LOL) and I wanted to keep it under 30,000 for the purpose of pricing it lower. We couldn’t find enough words to trim! Thankfully, the publisher responded to my begging and went with the lower price. See, I have learned from your excellent advice (about editing not begging) over the years!

    • WOW, Jannine. That’s fabulous! Apparently, you write pretty tightly. I can’t take any credit for what a talented writer you are, but if you want to give me some, I won’t stop you. 😉

  • Great post, Alicia. I struggle to tighten because I try to keep my writing tight to begin with. Then again, I don’t always succeed, and those dangling things (you didn’t mention the dangling modifiers and what not here) still get me every time. 🙂

    • If you write tight to begin with, not much to tighten, right? 🙂 I didn’t mention those DM’s here, but I gave them their own post last month, I think it was. Yes, those definitely need to be eliminated!

  • I’m one of those people who learns better from example, rather than from the lesson itself. I appreciate your clear examples of better wording. Thank you! And the exercise to delete ten words is a fantastic idea.

  • Great tips, Alicia! I’m printing this out to keep by my computer. Wow…to be able to write so tightly that it’s hard to delete a single word? Now THAT’s a goal. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Although I imagine we have had these pearly words of wisdom cast our way in the same classroom back in the day, or could we trace their golden message–TIGHTEN, TIGHTEN, THEN TIGHTEN SOME MORE– to a revered notebook of frantically scribbled notes taken during one of many conferences attended years ago? Now, there’s an example of approximately fifty words that could use some tightening. =) Whatever the case, your advice remains golden and your words are still pearls.
    PS: Waiting for your post on “filter words.” (I had an especially difficult time with that concept.) I’m pretty sure I still quote “your” definition, word for word. For that, thanks! Joelle Walker

    • Yes, I would imagine we’ve heard this message multiples times. I think I still have all those notebooks lying around somewhere. It’s funny you mention filter words. That’s one of the things that jump out at me to this day. I’ve actually done a blog post elsewhere on them, and I’ve done an online workshop and an in-person workshop. I’m glad the concept eventually became clear to you, grasshopper. 🙂 You are most welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

  • I put your list of filter words on a post it note. Then I counted the post it notes on my computer. I stack them. Post it notes can’t count as clutter, can they?

    • Hahaha, Liz. Actually, they DO count as clutter. But the lesson here is that it’s okay to clutter everything in your life EXCEPT your writing. At least those are the words I live by. 🙂 Thanks for visiting!

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