Strong stories are not necessarily short. They don't need to be Hemingway-esque masterpieces of bare prose. In fact, I have friends who would argue "Hemingway-esque masterpiece" is an oxymoron; the man's writing gets downright boring. And it would be hypocritical of me to argue for only short sentences or short paragraphs. I have to consciously apply myself to make use of either.
But in a strong story, every word counts. And no word is misplaced or ill-chosen. The vocabulary is vivid and usually varied, plus precise (though alliteration is optional). Words do not undermine or contradict their neighbors, and sentences flow well, not being fatiguing or confusing to read.
This is not the case in many, probably most, early drafts. When the writer's energies are focused on figuring out what the story is and what order to tell it in, they can't stop to worry about how many times they've used the word "almost" on one page. But an editor--whether a professional copyeditor, a beta reader doing their friend a favor, or an author revising their own work--would be remiss not to look out for these superfluous words, particularly because they're so common. Certain ones appear again and again as the culprits weakening an image or confounding a text, enough that I can create a handy wanted list for any writer to look out for. When I'm reading a page and the prose sounds subtly off to me, I reread again with an eye for these problem words, and I usually find one or more of them.
A number of the words on this list may be familiar to people who have read my earlier blog posts. This is a sign of just how common an issue they are, appearing in manuscripts by all kinds of writers in many different genres. It bears repeating how much they shouldn't be frequently repeated. Which doesn't mean they can never be used--all words have a purpose. Using them more mindfully, though, will improve most manuscripts.
Catching Problem Words
As you begin your line edit (after any major changes to plot, since you don't want to fiddle with words in a scene that gets entirely rewritten or cut later on), you can set your manuscript to highlight any of the words on the list below. This provides an immediate graphic representation of how often they appear, and how close together.
If you want you, can literally highlight them. Using Word's Find/Replace option, enter each word (or words, including alternative forms, conjugations, or synonyms) and replace it with itself, highlighted. Highlighting is found under the "format" drop down menu. Pick a color you like, because you're going to see plenty of it.
If highlighting gives you eyestrain, there are other options. Some writers replace the word with itself IN ALL CAPS, which can be just as eye-catching. You return a word to normal, should you choose to keep it, by selecting it and pressing Shift + F3.
Returning words to normal is also made easy with Tracked Changes. With Tracked Changes on, I find the word but leave the "Replace" bar empty, so that the target is in effect deleted from the manuscript. Tracked Changes shows this as the original word being struck through. Each time I decide I really do want to keep it--because, again, these words have their uses--I need to either reject my deletion or manually retype. Okay, it's not super easy. That would go against the point of this exercise, which is to make these words stand out for decimation (if you're lucky enough to only overuse them by 10%) or culling (for the rest of us).
Cut These Words
Yes, it is included in this post title with my tongue in cheek, but also because almost, like every other word on this list, it can be kept sometimes. Literature deals with ambiguous situations, unreliable narrators, and inexact cases where absolute word choice would be inaccurate. There's a world of difference between I almost missed the train and I missed the train!
However, writers may be impressed to see just how often "almost" goes without being said. There are also times where another word would fit better without needing to be qualified as "almost" so.
She was almost sad about his retirement could be She was disappointed to hear of his retirement or She was sad about his retirement.
Unless the focus is on the near-miss nature of a circumstance or event, "almost" can prove unnecessary. Take it out of your writing and see.
This issue also arises with similar phrases like "kind of," "sort of," and "a bit."
2. He said [and]
Only the most avant-garde manuscript would do away with dialogue tags entirely. And neither do I want to encourage writers to replace all the "said"s in their work with more "interesting" synonyms.
However, not all "said"s are required. I especially want to point out a tendency in some first drafts where dialogue tags are made redundant by character action beats that already identify the speaker.
"It's a bust," Sam said and shook his head.
Why not: "It's a bust." Sam shook his head.
There are reasons why not, such as keeping the rhythm of the extra two words. Or if an "interesting" dialogue tag is also needed to give the right picture: "It's a bust," Sam sobbed, shaking his head.
Note how even in that example I can't resit replacing the "said and" with a slightly less wordy alternative. The occasional "he said and" is a minor sin at worst. However, frequent and clumsy tagging can distract attention from the actual dialogue. If a manuscript is using a lot of dialogue tags, to the point that it becomes noticeable as an editor reads or rereads it, it's worth some extra examination.
3. "Actually" or "really"
These words definitely have their place (so does "definitely," their cousin). Yes, really!
But actually, in most writing it is assumed that the things being described really, actually happened in the world of the story. Unless it's in-character for the narrator or speaker to stress what they're saying by peppering in these adverbs, consider if they can be taken for granted. There's a risk otherwise of protesting too much and sounding sarcastic with their implied incredulity.
I realized you were actually good at this copyediting thing. I'm really grateful to hear you say that, italicized example text.
If "actually" is appearing multiple times on each page, I suspect the writer is worried about overcoming suspension of disbelief in their story (at least it is in my case when I overuse the word). Subconsciously, they overcompensate. To them, I say: try taking out your insistent adverbs and see how confident your prose will sound without them! Because it will. It really, actually, definitely will.
This is a common word for a reason. Most people use it at some point during their day, and it's helpful to communicate casualness and "no pressure"--or the opposite. "Just one minute!"
It's just been a long day has a different tone than It's been a long day.
However, if you've already said I'm just tired and I just need to lie down for just five minutes, the difference in tone becomes negligible.
A few "just"s go a long way, and they tend to appear in packs. Even when each individual instance works perfectly, consider cutting the less essential ones to avoid readers getting distracted by the repetitive rhythm and over-casual (bordering on indifferent) tone that builds up when every other sentence is "just" this or that.
The other word in the title of this post. It's rarer for this one to be overused, but sometimes authors will have passages talking about how their characters "always would" do this or that. Useful background information for a well-rounded cast? Sure. It can be a problem if it segues into telling over showing, or if it's unclear how the minutely depicted routine is relevant.
Additionally, sometimes "always would" adds distance where it isn't needed.
Uncle Bob always would take us fly fishing in summer lacks the immediacy of Uncle Bob took us fly fishing every summer.
In fact, "would" is a word to highlight too if you find yourself often talking about things that aren't happening directly in the story. It's a more complicated issue than overusing particular words in themselves--it's more about where the action and focus is. Even when narrating things that aren't happening onscreen, look for phrases that make them feel vivid and immediate.
When "would" is overused, it also sounds awkward.
When Sarah would pick me up for soccer practice, she would stick her head out of the moon roof and holler my name so loud the entire neighborhood would echo with her voice.
The sentence is a lot breezier without fewer "would"s:
Whenever Sarah picked me up for soccer practice, she'd stick her head out of the moon roof and holler my name so loud the entire neighborhood echoed with her voice.
According to Dictionary.com, that is a pronoun used 6 different ways, an adjective used 3 different ways, an adverb used 3 different ways, and a conjunction used 2 different ways. I can't distinguish half those uses myself. It's a word with a lot of uses, is the point I'm making.
Rather like "just" (but with even more applications), the word is so useful that it travels in packs. Resulting sentences can get awkward: I said that I knew that, but I'm touched that she cared enough that she put in the effort to do that. Not to mention vague.
It can signal unnecessary wordiness--Because of the fact that I missed the deadline can cut to the chase with Because I missed the deadline.
At other times it's a single unnecessary word: He's worried that she hates him can be He's worried she hates him. In cases like that (ha), there's no one right or wrong way to phrase it. You can keep "that" if you want and can do without it if you prefer. In some cases it makes a long sentence clearer. Yet if you're trying to cut words (perhaps you're at 1200 and the market is for flash fiction) "that" can be a painless one to target.
Speaking of pronouns and vagueness, not only 'that' but all its friends and family can sometimes get out of hand and lead to writing that is imprecise or confusing. Watch that your pronoun referent is clear. Rephrase when necessary.
Highlight along with was, are, will be, and all other conjugations of "to be." It's possible to write without them entirely, but that's not what I'm suggesting here. (Sorry, You can write without them entirely, but I don't suggest that here.)
Prose becomes more vivid when "to be" verbs and sentences made up of them are replaced with stronger or more specific ones. It's worth trying this for a few of your sentences just to see what happens:
She was sad about his retirement becomes His retirement saddened her.
The wind was blowing through the trees becomes Trees bowed in a growing wind.
There was a beach behind the house becomes "Yes! Beachfront property!" Sal ran towards the waves.
"To be" verbs can sometimes be repackaged as adjectives (The woman was blond becomes The blond woman... doing something else in an overall more multitextured sentence about more than her hair color).
There are also various English tenses that use "to be" verbs, like the present progressive: He was running down Birch Street. These aren't bad tenses, and you should feel free to use them. However, at times when "to be" verbs are the most frequent ones on the page, consider different ways to rephrase some.
The woman was blond and the man was running down Birch Street towards her, which was forward of him in my opinion, but maybe they were familiar with each other.
The man ran down Birch Street towards the blond woman. Pretty forward of him if you ask me, but maybe they knew each other.
A crowd could be seen out the hotel windows.
Could be seen by who? This is an unclear and inactive way to describe the presence of a crowd.
A crowd had gathered outside the hotel and their chanting carried through the windows.
I could feel my blood run cold (as one might hearing the chanting crowd) easily becomes I felt my blood run cold or, more direct still, My blood ran cold.
"Can" is often an unnecessary filter unless the focus is really on the ability to do something: After Dr. Speechgood's lessons, for the first time in my life I could appear onstage before a crowd without hyperventilating.
I use "can" in a number of places in this blog post, because I'm talking about options writers have rather than saying they must do any one thing.
However, watch out for "can"s that just add word count rather than meaning. Also be careful of similarly redundant filtering words such as "feel," "know," "think," "realize," "see," and "hear" (my examples above show how to remove a "felt" and a "seen"). Each of these words has its place, but often a sentence will work without them and focus instead on the sensation, knowledge, thoughts, realization, sight, or sound itself.
9. "Start" or "Begin"
As I researched the conspiracy, I began to get convinced of the scale of the cover-up.
Not an awful sentence, but it may cut to the chase: As I researched the conspiracy, I got convinced of the scale of the cover-up.
At the sound of the crash, I started to run across the street.
Here "started" may be more useful, because the sentence is about the sound that triggered the character's run. It still isn't essential to meaning: I ran across the street when I heard the crash.
I began to talk when my sister gently put her hand over my mouth.
Here "began" is appropriate because the action isn't completed. However, if there is no interruption, if the character both begins and completes their action, put the focus on the action instead.
I started to laugh to myself. My heart started pounding.
You save a few words by simply stating: I laughed to myself.* My heart pounded.
*Reflexive pronouns can also go unsaid for: I laughed (when the character's the only one in the room, we get the picture. If someone else is in the room, the laugh isn't private after all). In some manuscripts I highlight "to me"s.
You could probably write an entire story without it if you wanted to be experimental (sometimes I think of trying to). Still, most writers do not have a problem with using too many "and"s.
Some do, and I'm one of them.
It's part of the reason I write monstrously long sentences. I didn't notice the problem until a writing teacher pointed it out, circling all the "and"s on one of my pages. There were many, many circles. Breaking up some of those sentences, and deleting the superfluous second halves of others (I was terrified and anxious can be I was terrified), made the story much smoother to read.
Occasionally, when I find myself losing track of a paragraph, I look for the number of "and"s. Does everything in the story come in pairs, threesomes, or more? (If I'm adding or deleting Oxford commas, the "and"s become even more noticeable.) Do sentences stretch on and on, long past the point of fatigue? Is this an organized paragraph completely exploring a given topic, or is it a suitcase where every word and concept the author strikes on gets shoved in artlessly?
The "said and"s mentioned earlier can be considered a subset of "and" overuse. Related, "and" can connect two ideas that really need the breathing space of their own sentences. She kissed me for the first time last night and then confessed she murdered a man. --Unless the point of that line is to show how quickly things are moving, consider giving each of those ideas more room.
Also beware crammed lines that become bathetic: She felt her heart breaking, her eyes burning with tears, and her throat stop up, and past the pain and torment she said, "I don't know, and I'm too hurt right now to think clearly and rationally."
Other conjunctions such as "but" and "or" can also signal repetitive structure or superfluous additions. While you're scrubbing "actually"s from your prose to make it sound more convincing, I suggest you target "or something"s too. They're a warning sign for unclear thinking.
When we lost sight of your boat, I thought you'd drowned or something!
Doesn't "I thought you'd drowned" say enough?
I'll buy her a nice present, maybe flowers or something.
Stick with the concrete image: I'll buy her a nice present, maybe flowers (or chocolates).
(I'll buy her something nice, maybe flowers will also work, since it closes on the specific idea of flowers as an example of the nice somethings that might be given as gifts. It's only when a sentence goes on to be imprecise that it's weakened.)
Similarly, "somehow" and "some X" (as in "some X or another" or "some random X") should be watched for, in case they signal a fuzzy part of the story.
Lastly, there are classes of words that can't be easily highlighted, because they're all different, but still should be watched for.
11. Adjectives describing a character from that character's point of view
No need to get rid of these entirely, but do make sure they fit the character's voice and attitudes towards themselves. Have you noticed your raven locks or pearly smile lately? If you have, would you say so in those exact words?
Also make sure these descriptions--whether physical, mental, or emotional--come at a time that's appropriate. I knelt over my friend's body, brushing honey-blonde hair from my tear-filled eyes. This brutal and unanticipated murder had shaken my normally calm exterior.
It's a cliche to have a character stand in front of a mirror and rattle off details of their appearance, but I understand why it happens. Most of us don't think a whole lot about how we look except when we're confronted by it. If you're searching for more variety, people are also confronted by their appearance when they visit their parents and see their photos on the mantel, when they meet with their prettier siblings, when they scroll through pictures taken on their phone, and when they log in to their Blogger account and debate updating their Google Account icon.
12. "Editorializing" adjectives and adjectives that tell what has or will be show
"Editorializing" adjectives inject opinion and judgment: My cruel stepmother. My handsome but not entirely trustworthy boyfriend. My clever and glamorous girlfriend.
They have their place, but shouldn't be substitutes for full, well-rounded characterization. And if the characterization is vivid enough, these adjectives can feel distracting or patronizing to readers, who have already made their own judgments. An editorializing adjective is more useful to show the POV character's attitude than to convey new information (if the "cruel" stepmother is nothing but gracious in her actions, perhaps the narrator has a bias).
These superfluous "telling" adjectives can be minor--one I see with some frequency is when a character at a hospital and The female doctor turned to the male nurse and told him, "Make sure the patient's condition remains stable." He nodded and checked Pat's vitals as she left the room.
The pronouns effectively make it clear who is who, and to me this description seems to imply female doctors and male nurses are some different sort of species from the run of the mill doctor or nurse. If the gender is really noteworthy enough to be highlighted, that might come in dialogue, as when 90-year-old Pat exclaims "Look at that! A lady doctor! We didn't have so many of those in my day."
The issues can become more major when a mildly devious character is constantly described as "conniving," to the point that the reader feels the accusation is getting unjust or exaggerated. Or when a "shy" character accosts the protagonist and no one seems to find this unusual behavior. Or when the color of an item is repeated every time it makes an appearance, and every time the heroine blinks her eyes are described at topaz brown.
Overall, be careful of sentences crammed with adjectives and adverbs. A reader can get lost in a thicket of verbiage that gives no clear picture. It's hard to produce examples of this because it happens in aggregate, over a number of sentences or paragraphs. In general, though, every noun does not need an adjective and every verb does not need an adverb. If they get them anyway, the prose begins to pick up a rhythm that distracts from the actual story.
A last caution is to be thoughtful about word choice that might be cliche, insensitive, or both. An example that comes to mind is pretty much anytime authors have characters insulted based on their weight. Whatever the writer's intentions, which I mostly believe aren't deliberately nasty, there aren't any weight-based insults that are fresh or that make the insult-er come out the better (though it works if the goal is to show the insensitive speaker's flaws). I also want to warn against insults or jokes based on mental illnesses and disorders, especially because these often popularize ideas of the given disorder that are simply untrue. While a copyeditor can and should be able to gently point out these instances, it avoids awkwardness when an author is able to self-edit and pick different phrasing on their own.