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Become a word ninja – cut useless words from your writing

Useless words, the weak and the pointless words, steal power from your writing. We all let them sneak in during the first draft, so don’t panic – you’re not alone. It’s what we do about them later that counts. Removing these useless words helps speed up the pace of narrative as well as dialogue.

Even if you plan to send your manuscript to a professional editor, by removing as much of this minutia as you can, you’ll help them zero-in on where you can tune-up your story-telling.

They’re easy to find even in a long manuscript. No matter what platform you write in, take advantage of the search function to highlight these useless words during editing.

This is in no way a complete list, but keep a look-out for these most often-used useless words when editing your work:

felt – I used to use this one all the time and now stop myself when I catch myself typing it. I think about it in this way: Unless my perspective is inside my character, I can’t know how they felt. Instead, I can describe their actions or their facial expressions and use specific language in their dialogue to convey (show) how they feel. This makes for a more interesting read that puts the reader right at your shoulder watching the drama unfold.

How does that look? This: “He felt afraid” becomes “The colour drained from his face and his hands shook”.

“be” verbs (is, are, have, can, could, would, will, etc.) – Yes, they’re verbs, but passive verbs don’t make for strong writing. Are you willing to settle? Rewrite any sentence using a stronger, better stand-alone verb and see the flow improve. Or better, describe the action and let the picture unfold in the mind of the reader. Don’t simply tell them what the character is doing, let them see it.

Take this “He is using his sword” to this “He hefted the heavy blade off his shoulder and drove it into his opponent with a grunt”

a bit – When used as a modifier for emotions like “a bit angry”, “a bit sad”, it makes those statements less powerful. Be bold – dump it and let the emotion stand on its own.

really, very, quite, rather, etc. – More useless words used as weak modifiers. Drop them and let the words stand alone. Or, find stronger verbs and adjectives to replace the weak phrase and make mental images come alive for your reader.

Turn “very tired” into “exhausted”, “quite bothered” into “rattled”, “rather pretty” into “bewitching” or “really angry” into “raging”. Better, right?

think, thought, realise, felt, understood – Important tip: When we use these words, we take away from the reader’s experience. We want them to be a part of the characters’ introspection, to care about them. Being in the characters’ heads is a way for readers to feel close and become emotionally attached.

“Justin wondered if the magic stone would give him any powers” is distancing. But “Will this magic stone give me powers?” let’s the reader be part of that experience. This also holds true for narration. When the narrator throws out a question “Will the stone give Justin powers?”, this helps readers feel close with us. Like leaning over to your friend at the movies to make a comment, it adds to the experience of speaking to them one-on-one.

repetitive dialogue tags – Too many dialogue tags bog down the flow. Leaving them in means the narrator persistently breaks into the story and distracts your readers. Write strong dialogue and action that makes it clear who’s speaking, so you can remove a barrel of these from your manuscript.

You don’t need to take them all out, but within a run of dialogue, once you establish who is saying what with a few tags, it should be possible to follow the rest of the conversation without difficulty. If each character’s personality flavours their dialogue and the action around that dialogue conveys who is doing what, that’s all you need to keep the reader on track.

had – “Had” shows distant past tense in our writing, but it’s not necessary to use it in every sentence. Similar to dialogue tags, once you establish something is distant past using “had”, you can drop it from subsequent sentences. The narrative will still make sense and be lighter with more movement.

proofreading - find those useless words

actually, finally, obviously, suddenly, virtually, completely (and all other similar useless words) – These are fillers that add zero information to any sentence. And anything that doesn’t add something doesn’t need to be there. Most times, the sentence will make sense without these words. Honest.

up, down – Does your character really need to “sit down” on a chair? Pretty sure readers know the direction their butt travels as a character’s arse aims for a chair. Up or down stairs makes sense, because it involves directional movement, but keep an eye out for these words and remove them from anywhere they aren’t needed.

it – I’m guilty of this one. All. The. Time. I’m hyper-sensitive now, so target this word when I edit. When I get to a sentence containing “it”? I often replace “it” with the descriptive word for what “it” is – I name it. This provides clarity for the reader. Again, you don’t need to take them all out, but most of the time, stating what “it” refers to makes for a better sentence.

“begin”, “begin to”, “began”, “began to”, “started”, “started to” – Characters don’t need to start doing anything. And it’s not necessary to warn the reader when a character is about to perform an action. Take these words out and dive right in to show the reader what each character does.

just – Ugh, this one’s the worst, isn’t it? My early drafts of anything are riddled with “just”s. Similar to all those “LY” words that don’t add anything to a sentence, “just” is useless and does nothing for you. Another example of useless words used as a weak modifier, most of the time “just” should be deleted. Even if you’ve established a character’s speech pattern includes this word in dialogue, overuse risks dialogue that sounds repetitive.

that – Oh man, get rid of “that”. 99% of the time, removing it from any sentence won’t change the meaning. Plus, it lightens up the line to create better flow and readability.

something, someone, somewhere – All vague and taking up valuable word real estate. Similar to “it”, replace these placeholders with what the thing is.

then – Try replacing “then” with “and” and compare how it goes across. Events in sequence can sound like a laundry list of tasks when connected with “then” and makes for a boring read: “I did this. Then did that. Then I went over there and did this.” This narrative is interesting to no one.

Connected by “and” makes it come alive “I did this and that. And went over there and did this.”

repetitive actions – This is where we see characters persistently nodding, shrugging, scratching, pursing their lips, etc.. We all have our little pet actions, so become aware of your crutch phrases. Acknowledging we lean on them is half the battle. Don’t think you have any? Use the search function in your writing program to highlight one of these words like “nodded” or “shrugged” to get a visual on exactly how many times they appear.

There’s nothing wrong with a character shrugging. But if all your characters shrug consistently enough it’s noticeable to the reader, then it’s repetitive. Thin it out.

Check out these other helpful self-editing articles!

Targeted Editing – Part 1

Targeted Editing – Part 2

Targeted Editing – Part 3

Targeted Editing – Part 4

Self-Edit Checklist

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