I overheard an author friend of mine the other day learn to take the word “that” out of his writing and I was surprised he hadn’t heard this before, as we’ve been in writing groups together for several years. So I thought I’d make this week’s blog about words to cut when editing your manuscript. You never know who might need to hear it. The words on this list are vague and often used as short-cuts in your writing, so removing them will make your manuscript stronger and more to the point.
*One more thing. None of us is going to get this perfectly done the first time. Sometimes, you never catch them at all. I certainly don’t. My first book was full of these common mistakes. The difficult part is, this takes editing. You cannot merely click on the “replace” tab and blindly replace or delete all these words. Some sentences need these words to convey a certain message or series of events. And that’s okay. Make sure to take it on a case by case basis. The point is to recognize when you are using these words in your writing from now on, and choose a different phrasing as you go. It will help your editing and your ability to write concisely. So let’s get started.
“THAT”: We use this word so often that it’s hard to think of an example. I crack myself up. Look at the sentence above. If you cut out the word “THAT,” it reads, “We use this word so often, it’s hard to think of an example.” It strengthens the sentence. And that’s what we are trying to do.
“JUST”: I just need to go becomes “I need to go.” It doesn’t need the weak word at all
“VERY”: We use this word very often. See what I did there? The word is meant to convey an extra amount of something. You can either be more specific as in, “We use this word in __% of the English language.” Or delete it all together and say, “We use this word often.” When writing, instead of saying, “She was very happy,” put, “She was ecstatic.”
Adverbs (words that end in “-LY”): Two of them are on this page: VERY and REALLY. “She is very pretty.” And, “He is really hungry.” These words are meant again to convey an extra amount of the adjective. In this case, choose a stronger adjective. “She is beautiful.” And, “He is famished.” Much stronger, don’t you think?
“MOSTLY/ OFTEN”: Does your character go to the pub often? Or does he go every two weeks like clockwork? Does she mostly want to win? Or does she not feel like winning the soccer game anymore because her father promised to see the winning goal, but he never showed up?
“SOME”: Joe Bunting, at The Write Practice said on his blog: “Here is the definition of the word “some”:
An unspecified amount or number of.
Used to refer to someone or something that is unknown or unspecified.
By definition, the word “some” is vague, and as you know, vague writing is bad writing.
“REALLY”: This word is an amplifier. But, I hear you say, “She’s not mad, she’s really mad. And it’s not soft, it’s really soft.” I hear you. But just like with “VERY” we need to choose one stronger adjective. Like, “She’s furious. And it’s downy.”
“BASICALLY/ ACTUALLY”: Is it basically true? Is it actually real? Then it’s not necessary to tell us. We will believe you if you tell us it is true, or it is real.
“SORT OF/KIND OF”: These wishy-washy words are way too vague. They do happen in regular conversation, but in writing we want our characters to know who they are, what they want, how they’re going to get it and who they love. In worlds of heated emotions, “sort of” seems so bland.
“AND THEN”: I recently had an editor go over my manuscript and highlight every incidence of the phrase “and then,” with a note saying, “Use either ‘and’ or ‘then.’” In some cases she was correct and it made the sentence stronger. Other times, I wanted the reader to understand a sequence of events. She did this action, and THEN she did the second action. I feel like in that case it’s allowed, but most times you need to check and see if one of them can be removed.
“STARTED”: Rather than, “She started to make a pie,” you can say, “She made a pie.” I personally have a problem with this one. If your characters was standing in the kitchen and she started making a pie but her love walks in the door, and he wants to hug her, but her hands are covered in flour, so she bops him on the nose and they laugh before he kisses her? That would never be adequately explained as, “She made a pie.”
Dialogue tags other than “SAID”: Said is called a non-word because when a reader sees it, they don’t actually READ the word. It’s understood, it doesn’t register. When the reader sees words like, “exclaimed, cried, yelled, and whispered,” their brains slow down to read the word. What you want is for the reader to follow the dialogue smoothly; and the best way to do that is with “SAID.” Most of the time, dialogue tags are not even necessary.
“Go to sleep.” Billy’s mother peeked her head through the doorway.
“I can’t. I need a drink.” Billy pulled his covers up and folded his arms.
“You’ve had two drinks, and a story.”
“But I want another one. Please?” He gave his mother his best puppy-dog pout.
“Maybe one more…”
Consider the conversation above. There is not one dialogue tag. No one “SAID” anything. And likely, you still followed the conversation with some idea of whom was speaking. Let your readers follow your conversations with “SAID” and action tags.
“FELT”: Unless you are saying “I felt the softness of the velvet dress,” you are probably using this one wrong. It’s usually used as “She felt happy.” Anytime you are telling us how someone felt, you are “telling” not “showing.” If you aren’t familiar with “Show, don’t tell,” leave a note in the comments and I can answer in another post.
“UP/DOWN”: This is generally meant not for when you are giving a direction; but when they are used redundantly, such as, “The girl stood up,” or “The dog sat down.” In this case they are weak words and need to be chopped to say, “The girl stood,” and “The dog sat.”
“PERHAPS/MAYBE”: These are modifiers and most of the time they are uncertain words. Like “SORT OF/ KIND OF” readers want characters who make a stand and authors who are clear.
“STUFF/THINGS”: These words are meant to include a vague number of items. Try being specific with what those “things” are. Instead of saying, “She brought her stuff to the pool.” You could say, “She brought her towel and suntan oil to the pool.” Or instead of, “She loved the stuff in her room, it comforted her.” You might say, “She loved the pictures of her family on her dresser from their last summer with mom, they comforted her.” Sometimes adding one detail is better than lumping many odd nothings together.
“ABSOLUTELY”: This word is used to say “very much so.” Whether it is “absolutely true,” or “absolutely destroyed,” or someone is “absolutely terrified,” the word “ABSOLUTELY” weakens the word it’s meant to stress. It then becomes “True.” Or, if you are trying to stress a word or emotion with “absolutely,” choose a stronger adjective so that it’s not merely “destroyed” it’s obliterated, and if the person is more than “terrified” I would show that in my writing by letting us know if that character is biting their nails, scratching themselves, shaking, wetting their pants. You get the idea.
Redundant phrasing like ADD UP, ADVANCE FORWARD, ADDED BONUS, ANONYMOUS STRANGER, or BALD HEADED.
“SO”: When used as a description it is too vague. “He was so big…” “It was so warm…” Use a better adjective here. He was too big to fit in the doorframe,” or “It was balmy (or hot).”
“OF”: This word is generally not required when used as: On top of… Outside of… All of…
“OF THE”: can be replaced. Instead of saying “The owner of the team,” you say, “The team’s owner.” Or in another case, “The door of the store,” would say instead, “The store’s door.”
Mark Twain famously wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Meaning, it is hard to make writing that reads well. When you find yourself using these words, try to find something more specific to take their place. And good luck as your writing skill grows!
All my best