43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately
Words you should delete
Really, very. These are useless modifiers. You should be able to find stronger verbs or adjectives for whatever you’re trying to enhance. For example, “He ran very quickly along the really long field.” can be, “He sprinted across the vast field.”
That. If a sentence still makes sense after removing “that,” delete it. For example, “This is the most amazing blog post that I’ve ever read.” can be, “This is the most amazing blog post I’ve ever read.”
Just. I have a hard time removing “just,” especially in dialogue. But for the most part, you don’t need it, and too many can make your dialogue or prose repetitive.
Then. When showing a sequence of events, either remove “then” or try using “and” instead of “then.” Using “then” frequently sounds repetitive and even juvenile. “I shut the car door, then tripped over the sidewalk. Then Bob pointed and laughed, and then my cheeks flushed.” sounds better as, “I shut the car door and tripped over the sidewalk. My cheeks flushed as Bob pointed and laughed.”
Totally, completely, absolutely, literally. These words don’t add information to a sentence. For example, “The box was completely full of clothes.” reads the same as, “The box was full of clothes.” or better yet, “The box was stuffed with clothes.”
Definitely, certainly, probably, actually, basically, virtually. Again, these words don’t add information. If the sentence makes sense without these words, remove them.
Start, begin, began, begun. These words are unnecessary unless an interruption to the action soon occurs. But for the most part, you can remove these words.
Rather, quite, somewhat, somehow. A movie doesn’t have to be “rather dull,” it can just be “dull.” Delete!
Said, replied, asked, and any other dialogue tag.
Down, up. Usually, these words are unnecessary and you can remove them. For example, “I sat down on the floor.” could be, “I sat on the floor.” and “I stood up.” could be, “I stood.”
Wonder, ponder, think, thought, feel, felt, understand, realize. When you add any of these terms, you’re removing readers from the introspection and adding useless words. For example, “I wondered whether Johnny was the murderer.” could be, “Was Johnny the murderer?” If the narrator questions, “Was Johnny the murderer?” it’s self-explanatory that the narrator is wondering it. This also helps readers feel closer to your narrator, and more involved in the speculation.
Breath, breathe, inhale, exhale. These are far too commonly used by many authors to describe character internals, including me! Instead of deleting, you’ll have to find an alternative way to describe how a character is reacting to whatever has made them breathe quickly, exhale sharply, or “Let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.” Ick! I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus in paperback, not digital, so you can skim through any time.
Shrug, nod, reach. Every author has her own quirks, and over time, you should become familiar with your own. These are a few of mine — in my first drafts, I have characters shrug, nod, and reach for things way too often — and I know a lot of other writers include these, too. Always have second readers, whether you’re writing a novel or blog post. They’ll be able to point out actions that happen too frequently better than you can, because you’ll usually be too close to your own writing to notice.
How to find these words in your writing
If you’re using Word, it’s easy to find these useless words. First, make sure to select a highlight color from the toolbar besides white.
Click Edit > Find > Advanced Find and Replace. Click Replace and the little down arrow.
Enter the word you’re seeking in both the Find what: and Replace with: fields. When your cursor is still in the Replace with: field, click Format > Highlight.
Click Replace All. Repeat this process for every word you want to find in your document. Then you can scroll through your writing and easily spot these words, and decide if you want to delete them. Doing a Find/Replace to delete these words isn’t a good option because there will be some instances when simply removing the word muddles the meaning of your sentence. Sometimes a sentence will need to be reworked.
1. Get to the end of the story
One of the biggest mistakes I made writing my first novel was spending too much time polishing the language before I understood the story’s arc. I didn’t know if the words and sentences I was massaging supported the story, because I had no idea how it ended. I finally made a huge poster that read: “GET TO THE END OF THE STORY” and taped it to the wall behind my computer. This simple trick helped me push forward to the end.
2. Put the manuscript away for a while and write something else
After five and a half years of steady work on my novel, I inadvertently set it aside for eighteen months to write 600 pages of material for a second novel. I thought my first novel was dead. Then I opened the file one day and started reading it from the beginning. What I discovered was that the time away allowed me to experience the manuscript as a reader instead of a writer. Not only did I find I liked what I’d written, I saw where the holes were, and how it might end. Ten months after its rediscovery, it was sold overnight to Random House.
3. Set a timer for forty-five minutes, then take a fifteen minute break
This is a trick that emerged out of creativity research, and that I first heard about from another writer, Ellen Sussman. When you sit down to write, set a timer for forty-five minutes. Force yourself to begin putting words on the page immediately, and don’t stop until the timer goes off, even if you have to write about the weather.[Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Then reset the timer for a fifteen minute break. During the break, don’t check email; do something mindless like dishes or jumping jacks or cartwheels. This trick frees your subconscious to tackle bigger issues in the manuscript. You’ll find that when you sit down again for another forty-five minute session, you’ll have made breakthroughs without even trying.
4. Only set writing goals that are completely within your control
Some writers set daily word count or page goals; I find it simpler to commit to the amount of time I spend writing every day. If I get interrupted by my kids, I can always make the hours up at night when they’re asleep. I set a goal of three writing hours (45 minutes on, 15 minutes off) per day, five days a week. I keep track of the hours on a log next to my desk, and when I reach fifteen, I’ve met my goal.
5. Keep a poem in progress on your desktop
Diving into your novel in the morning can feel daunting. One trick I’ve learned is to keep a poem-in-progress on my desktop. I don’t ever try to publish my poetry, so there’s no pressure to write well. I’m free to experiment, and the exercise loosens my writing mind and gets me working at the level of words. I usually find that after five minutes work on the poem, I’m ready to jump into my larger project.
6. Organize a self-styled writing retreat
I was only able to finish my novel because my mother took over my household of four kids (and a dog), and she and my husband sent me to the mountains for ten days to write. I holed up in a rented cabin and forced myself to sit in the chair all day and engage with the work. This week away helped me solve big problems in the manuscript that required the kind of deep thought that can be hard to find at home.
7. Read other novels, not short stories
Beginning creative writers are often encouraged to read and write short stories. This makes sense, because you have to start small and master the art of the image. But the short story form has a particular arc that gets in your head and can interfere when you try to write something longer. With a novel, you have to fight the impulse to wrap things up; you have to allow yourself to move forward without a clear direction for long stretches of time. Limiting yourself to only reading other novels when you’re in the thick of work on the novel plants the right shape for story-telling in your head.
8. Write 1,200 pages to get 300
In a brilliant post on Powell’s Books’ blog, Joshua Mohr argues that you might need 1,200 pages of writing to get to a 300 page finished novel. This was true of my first book, and I suspect it will be true of the second. You’re really writing two novels, Josh says, the one that finally emerges, and the one that meandered through a 1,200 page labyrinth. This larger work is “a thorough, often painstaking, often unreadable beast best never shown to anyone else, even our spouses and/or lovers, who may say it has ‘potential’ but they’re lying.” The work on the 1,200 pages is not wasted; it’s an essential part of the process.
9. Find three trusted readers, not just one
When my manuscript was ready, I sent it out to eight agents. Within a week, five had made offers of representation. I spoke on the phone, at length, with each of them, and jotted down their suggestions for revision. Reading is subjective, and when I reviewed those notes afterward, it was like looking at a Venn diagram in which none of the circles intersected. Relying on only one critique might have sent me in the wrong direction.
So when you’re ready, find three trusted readers who will review your draft at the same time. Don’t read their critiques until you have all three. That way, you won’t be crushed if one person doesn’t respond the way you’d hoped, and you’ll be able to pick and choose the suggestions that most resonate with you. It’s your novel, after all. Input is absolutely critical, but in the end, you have to sift through it and be faithful to your own voice.