Editing Those Beloved Words

by Susan J. Zall
Creator of Writer's Infusion

Let’s talk about words - specifically, those words you don’t need in your story, and those words and phrases that can be replaced with more precise language.

The editing process for many is the toughest part of writing. But to me, it’s the most satisfying because it improves your manuscript. What are the advantages?

1.       Your story reads better.

2.       When you send a query to a literary agent, word count is important. Many have word count guidelines you don’t want to exceed.

3.       It’s satisfying to tighten up your manuscript! It’s similar to organizing your closet, or writing a list. It’s neater, more organized, more effective.

So how do you weed out those unnecessary words? What phrases can you rewrite? Well, you can start with my list, if you’d like!

Here’s one example: small cottage. As a general rule, most cottages are “small”, and that’s how your reader will picture it – as small. Delete it! To determine how many times you’ve used a particular word, do a word count (highlight the word and choose the “Find” function, or use your quick keys to do it (highlight the word and hit Ctrl-F)). Those overused words will pop out in yellow highlight, possibly making you cringe.

An example of a phrase that can be re-written… Don’t write: She could still feel the pain in her arms and legs. Instead, write: Pain lingered in her arms and legs.

Let’s keep going. I’ve got plenty to include, and Jenn added a bunch:

Words that clutter: just, really, still, so, to her, to him, to herself, to himself, but, *ness, asked him, asked her, even, matter, that

Don’t write: “Let’s go to the store,” she said to him.
Write: “Let’s go to the store,” she said. Usually, you won’t need the “to him” phrase.

Time-related words:  all of a sudden, moment, in a moment, in a minute, right now, in order to (I will red line this expression anywhere I see it!), then, several, several times, start, then, first, suddenly, finally, eventually

The senses: feel, feels, feeling, felt, hear, hears, heard, see, saw, look, looks, looked, seem, noticed, watched

Don’t write: Joe saw Sally in the hallway near the lockers.
Write: Sally leaned against the lockers in the hallway.

Afraid of commitment words: seem, begin/start

Don’t write: Joe seemed to be upset. This tells the reader nothing. Show his body language or facial expressions. Check out The Emotional Thesaurus for terrific examples; the link is on the Resources\Writing Tools section of our website.
Write: He slammed his hand on the table.

Don’t write: I began to run.
Write: I ran. (although run is a weak verb - that is another blog!)

The verb “to be”:  am, is, are, was, were, will, would, it was, there is, there was, being

The verb “to have”: has, have, had

The verb “can”: can, could (This indicates that you may be using passive voice.)

Weak sentence starters: unfortunately, incredibly, hopefully, the fact that, actually

Knowing: know, knew, known, realized, wondered, thought

Don’t write: Jackie knew she only had ten minutes to get to the crime scene.
Write: Jackie had ten minutes to get to the crime scene.

Ambiguous words: maybe, usually, perhaps, possibly

Weak adjectives: really, very, small, large. These adjectives don’t help the reader visualize what you are describing. Refer to the “small” example earlier in this blog.

Adverbs: totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously – in general, any words ending in “ly”. Personally, I think it’s okay to use adverbs sometimes, but try to find a stronger verb instead whenever possible.

Don’t write: walk slowly
Write: hobble, lumber, plod

Jenn would like to add that she doesn’t like the expressions “Nowhere to be seen” (passive) and “made his way around” (We challenge you to find a stronger verb.).

Ask someone to read your story and note any unnecessary words as part of their review. Beta readers love to catch our mistakes! 

Share your overused words with us, and we’ll start a list on our website.

Remember, be kind to yourself. Editing takes time and patience.

Keep writing!