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Cut the Flab—Make Every Word Count

on January 22nd, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 17, 2013

I’ve addressed this issue before, the inclusion of words that don’t add to the power or emotion of a scene or paragraph, words that might instead diffuse the impact of a line of text, leach the oomph from the unfolding drama. Maybe even negate the potency of a nearby word that the writer had painstakingly chosen for its effect.

While not all words have to make a reader’s hair stand on end, every word should contribute. They definitely shouldn’t drain surrounding words of their intent. And phrases should be more than place-fillers.

Plenty of workhorse phrases are necessary to connect other words and to frame the supports of your stories—we have to show that characters move across a room or pick up objects or eat. And we don’t always have to say something such as she flounced to the window or Miguel scooped his stew and lifted his spoon to his lips with precision. Sometimes we just want to say he ran to the door or he ate his meal in silence.

But this doesn’t mean that we pile on emotion-neutral or common words and phrases when they do nothing for meaning or impact. Use common phrases when necessary, but don’t give your writing the blahs. Write as you need to for the first couple of drafts but when you rewrite and edit, cut out phrases that reveal nothing, that add nothing vital for reader understanding or emotion. And most definitely cut words that are not even neutral but instead suck the life from a scene.

Let me offer a few examples of filler or weak phrases that can reduce the impact of the surrounding words and prevent a scene from being as powerful or as moving as you intend it to be. You’ve probably got a list of your own. My advice is that you cut out such words and phrases as often as possible. Don’t let them weaken the power of an otherwise well-crafted story.

For Some Reason
It goes without saying that everything is done for some reason, so there’s no reason to point that out. Just say the thing, whatever it is. Look at these sentences—

For some reason, he didn’t show up.

He didn’t show up.

What is gained by including the words for some reason? They don’t reveal additional information. They do soften the words that follow, allowing them to blend in rather than stand out. While that is a legitimate purpose, most of the time you’ll want your words to be seen and noticed. (Hiding words in plain sight, in the middle of a paragraph of text, for a mystery, is a different issue. You often want those words to not be noticed. Or at least not attracting a lot of attention and study.)

Somehow
Somehow is often used the same way for some reason is. But it also diffuses the impact and power of surrounding words.

Somehow Jill lost her way.

Why not simply say Jill lost her way? It’s clear and gets to the point. Somehow adds nothing to the meaning and, especially at the beginning of the sentence, it’s weak. Why began with a meaningless word when you can open a sentence with a more pointed word?

Note: Word location in sentences and paragraphs is significant and should be considered when you rewrite and edit. Readers notice and remember final words and images. Opening words may not be noticed as much, may not have as strong an impact as closing words, but they’re definitely noticed more than words found in the middle of sentences and paragraphs. Choose opening words with deliberation.

At That [this] Moment [period] in Time
Use then and now rather than trying to sound literary or pseudo-refined. The use of more words, classy- or sophisticated-sounding phrases, doesn’t ensure clarity and can make the writing sound fussy.

Time
There’s no need to add the word time in sentences such as she would be going to the ball in three hours’ time. Try she’d leave for the ball in three hours or the ball began in three hours.

Give a Something
I had to edit the article to add this one; I’ve seen it a lot lately. There’s nothing wrong with using give or gave this way every one in a while, but check your text. If this is a favorite phrasing, you’ll see it again and again, and you’ll want to change some uses of it. For a stronger impact, for less distance between reader and action, change the nouns in these sentences to verbs and cut out uses of give

She gave Alex a kiss. X

She kissed Alex.

He gave a startled groan when he saw the skeleton. X

Startled, he groaned when he saw the skeleton.

Pete gives a whistle to call the dog. X

Pete whistles for the dog.

Took a Something
Cut uses of took a something the same way you cut gave a something. Yes, sometimes this is exactly the phrasing a character might use. But when it’s not, cut it.

Clementine took a look out the window. X

Clementine searched through the window. (Look gets old really fast.)

Lisa and Bill took a walk on the beach. X

Lisa and Bill walked (something more revealing of character than walk?) on the beach.

The Fact of the Matter Is (or the truth is)
The fact of the matter is that you don’t need so many words. Even the fact is can be too much. Why not the clear and simple you don’t need so many words?

The fact of the matter is that I needed him and couldn’t admit it. X

Even worse (and not simply in terms of word count)—The simple fact of the matter is . . . X

I needed him. I just couldn’t admit it.

Outside or Inside
Appropriate words when necessary, outside and inside can be laughable or jarring if used when they’re not needed.

__ Mary looked through the window. It was raining outside, and she’d left her umbrella at the restaurant. X

__ The hushed crowd heard the motorcycles racing down the street outside. X

Unless there’s something unusual going on in this world, the rain would naturally be falling outside rather than inside. And barring unusual circumstances, both streets and the motorcycles racing down them would be outside.

Cut out words too obvious to be necessary. You don’t want readers having that Well, duh! reaction.

Due to the Fact That
Get to the point. Use because.

Some Kind [sort] Of
This one’s definitely a hedge. Just say it outright.

They needed some kind of a plan. X

They needed a plan.

It was some sort of convoluted trick, she just knew it. X

Dell’s words were a convoluted con, she just knew it.

It’s Important That We or We Need To
Try we should. Yes, sometimes we need to has exactly the meaning you want, but when you mean should, use should.

Tried To
Use this phrase only if the character couldn’t do whatever she tried to do. If she succeeds, just say she did it. Put the accent on the verb portraying the action and not on try. Rather than she tried to reach for the phone, say she reached for the phone.

She tried to tell Sam that she loved him. X

She told Sam she loved him.

Kelsey tried to ace the exam and did. X

Kelsey aced the exam.

But—Marsden tried to reach the glass on the top shelf, but he was at least a foot too short.

Started [began] To
Use this phrase only if the character is interrupted doing whatever he started to do or when you need to convey the time an act was begun, maybe refer to other events beginning in conjunction with this act. If the action is a common one or there’s nothing special to it, put the accent on the action itself rather than on the fact that action is being started.

He started to walk down the street and spent the next five minutes peering into shop windows. X

He walked down the street and spent the next five minutes peering into shop windows.

He started walking down the street, and Edgar fell in behind him.

Bel-Air Acres had started to fall apart, but the Northside Development Group threw money and plans at the area and it was now a thriving community.

So As To or In Order To
Try the simple but sufficient to on its own. If to seems common and plain, change the surrounding words.

So as to look thinner, she wore a black wrap-around dress. X

To look thinner . . .

To hide her bulges . . .

To pretend she hadn’t gained thirty-five pounds since their last meeting . . .

. . . she wore a black wrap-around dress.

It Goes Without Saying
If it goes without saying, don’t say it. I threw this one in above to see if it would annoy anyone. It’s a phrase that does annoy because we’re all thinking, If it goes without saying, why are you saying it and introducing it, drawing more attention to this thing that doesn’t need saying, with this annoying phrase?

Yes, a character might say this as he hems and haws over an issue, but do realize that your readers may react negatively to the phrase.

Single Words

Sometimes it’s those single words that leach the impact from our phrases. I’ve covered hedge words before, so I won’t mention most of those. But when you use inexact words—really, some, very, just, almost—reconsider their use and then reconsider again. You may have legitimate reasons to use them, of course you may. But don’t let these and similar words be your go-to words.

It and thing are two more words that can drain the oomph from an otherwise powerful or precise sentence. I’ve already covered itThe Ubiquitous, Wondering It—so I won’t go into detail again. But I suggest you curb your use of the word, especially when it’s a would-be pronoun for an undefined noun.

And the same goes for thing(s). Be specific rather than vague. Pinpoint the object or emotion or action rather than settling for the general thing.

You’re writing a one-of-a-kind story; make every word count. Paint a page with specifics that speak to your characters’ situations and personalities and needs.

Exceptions

As always, there are exceptions, especially in dialogue. But write for impact, even when your characters speak. Cut bloat and unnecessary words. Don’t let your scenes and stories be drained by excess words, especially weak ones. And don’t let meaning be obscured or made fuzzy by word bloat.

I don’t intend to be dogmatic, telling you what you can and can’t include. I do want to point out ways to craft stronger and more entertaining stories. If you use such words and phrases once or twice in a novel, the read may not suffer unduly. And if you use them purposely, to create a fuzzy or weak passage by design, then of course you wouldn’t necessarily want to make changes. But if you repeatedly use words or phrases that don’t add to your fiction, and if instead they diffuse the impact you’re trying to create, your stories won’t be as compelling as they could be. And we all want to read involving, compelling, and entertaining books.

Make sure your stories make it into the lists of compelling fiction.

Edit for impact today.

***

Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Editing Tips

14 Responses to “Cut the Flab—Make Every Word Count”

  1. Neal Asher says:

    Good stuff – thanks.

  2. My pleasure, Neal. Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  3. Hi Beth,

    Good examples. If the words aren’t precise, the story may start to wander and take the reader out of the story.

  4. Confusing words, unnecessary words, wrong words—they all serve to weaken a story. I’m with you, James. We definitely don’t want stories and readers wandering off.

  5. I found your blog while surfing the web, and man I have not stopped reading your posts since. You have officially become a go-to person along with my writer reference materials and books. I am going on my 2nd year writing my first novel, and it seems as if I recently started. My first draft was completed nine months from the start. I avoid reading other writers in the Street Fiction genre to avoid unconciously using anything I have read in my stories.Is this practice good or bad?

  6. Amandah says:

    Hi Beth,

    I’m the type of writer who likes to edit as I write. I know some writers frown upon this, but I can’t help it. I do my best to write clear and concise sentences; however, wordiness happens to the best of us.

    Thank you for this comprehensive list!

  7. A. C., I’m glad you’re finding info you can use. As for not reading others in the same genre, I’d say that most writers don’t have to worry about unconsciously borrowing. Read what you like to read and just make sure your plot and characters are different. But if you’re truly worried, simply read in other genres while you’re actively writing. You need to feed your own reading needs, and now might be a time to branch out.

    Good luck.

  8. Amandah, you’re most welcome for the list. I’m one of those who suggests you not edit as you write, mostly because the activities are so truly different. If you’re worried about getting words and plot and dialogue exactly right, you’re typically not allowing the creative side the freedom it needs.

    Yet the important thing is to write. And that means whatever method works best for you. Good luck.

  9. Philip W. says:

    Thanks for another insightful entry Beth. I’ve been reading your blog for about a year. I’m fifty years old and just completed my first novel (no, it didn’t take me fifty years to write it), and I feel so overwhelmed by all the writers, books on writing, articles on writing, etc., out there that I wonder if I’ll ever be “good” at it. But your entries are a bright spot of help and reassurance because they are down to earth and practical.
    Please keep writing, and so will I.
    thanks

  10. Philip, congratulations on finishing the first draft of the first novel! Since you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you know my advice for your next step—celebrate your achievement. No matter what the condition of the manuscript, you deserve to celebrate what you’ve accomplished. I wish you great success with your next steps.

    And thank you so much for letting me know how the blog has helped; That means a lot to me. I promise I’ll keep at it as long as I’ve got something to say.

    The power of words, what they can accomplish, is amazing. I’m glad to be a part of the writing world.

  11. Will Piovano says:

    A great post, Beth. I find these rules to be one of the easiest (though not necessarily most obvious) ways to kick your prose up a notch in quality.

  12. Will, changing a few simple words does make a difference, doesn’t it. While other issues might need to be taken care of first—every story needs a decent plot and fascinating characters—word choice can make the difference between a story that hits and one that just misses.

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