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.
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.