By Eva Langston of In the Garden of Eva: The Daily Growth of a Writer’s Plot
Like extra cookies you don’t really need, extra words can make your writing flabby. Especially in the online world, where readers want articles that are quick and easy-to-read, it’s important to keep your sentences trim.
Whenever I finish writing an article, story, or novel, I use the “search” function to find the following words. Most of the time, I realize they’re unnecessary. They are clogging up the arteries of my prose, and I can delete them. It’s amazing how taking away a few little words can make such a big difference in the readability and flow of a piece.
So put your finger on the delete button, and get ready to trim your writing.
I just can’t get enough of this word and just can’t seem to stop using it in my writing. I just have to go through my prose and cut out all the “justs.” Usually “just”
just isn’t needed.
Example: She dropped the necklace down the front of her shirt so that the charm rested between her breasts. Do we really need “that” in this sentence? Take it out and see how it sounds. Most of the time, you don’t need “that.”
I’m all for making it clear who says what in dialogue. But if it’s already clear, cut the “said.” This is especially easy to do when there is already an action associated with the speaker. For example, change this: “You’re insane,” Diane said, backing away to “You’re insane.” Diane backed away.
Change I can hear the crows cawing outside my window or I can feel my breakfast churning in my gut to I hear the crows cawing and I feel my breakfast churning. OR even better, change to The crows caw outside my window and My breakfast churns inside my gut. See how much trimmer that is?
Instead of telling how something “seems” tell us how it IS.
In my stories everything is always happening without warning. Suddenly the door burst open. Suddenly she turned to me and kissed me. Most of the time, you can cut the suddenly.
#7 am, was, were
Use active, simple verb structures whenever possible. Instead of We were standing next to the statue write We stood next to the statue.
#8 really, very
If you find yourself putting these qualifiers in front of an adjective, ask yourself if there’s a more precise adjective you can use instead. For example, gorgeous instead of very pretty or vile instead of really gross.
#9 started to, began to
It’s amazing how many times the characters in my stories start to do something instead of simply doing it. Change She started to walk down the street to She walked down the street. Change He began to wonder if she loved him to He wondered if she loved him.
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#10 haughtily, forcefully, and other adverbs
Don’t use an adjective and verb combo if there’s a more precise and/or active verb you can use instead. For example, sprinted instead of ran quickly or yanked instead of pulled forcefully. As Ursula K LeGuinn says in her book Steering the Craft, “adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.” Perhaps the same is true for all the words in this list.
Eva Langston received her MFA from the University of New Orleans, and her fiction has been published in many journals and anthologies. She is the Features Editor for Compose Journal and a writing workshop leader at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. A former math teacher for students with learning disabilities, she now tutors middle-school part-time and writes novels for young people. You can read about her slow journey towards a writing career at inthegardenofeva.com or follow her on Twitter at @eva_langston.