As part of my editing checklist, I have created a listing of phrases or words to seek out (and possibly destroy) in order to tighten up my prose and, hopefully, make my drivel somewhat tolerable.
Below is a listing of those words/phrases and a quick description as to why I seek them out. They are ordered, first to last, in regards to what I feel are the most important to destroy.
NOTE: The list below carries the following caveats:
- Dialog: The suggestions do not necessarily apply to dialog. If the dialog sounds natural or the word choice is intentional, I say leave it be.
- Research: These are only suggestions based on years of researching the art of writing. I do not claim these suggestions are right or wrong, they are simply what I use when editing.
Words To Consider Cutting:
- “LY” words: Words ending in “LY” are often adverbs and typically “tell” rather than “show”. My research has shown that LY words should be used SPARINGLY, for example, when timing is of the essence and you need a quick hitting word vs more lengthy prose. But in general, LY words tend to be something to hunt down and destroy when and where possible. Example:
- He ran quickly across the yard.
- vs: He sprinted across the yard.
- Was, were: While not always true, I find was/were and their variants often point to passive sentences. The occasional passive sentence can work. But most of the advice I have read points to cutting them WAY down and that editors will often look at the number of Was/Were’s as an indicator of how passive someone’s writing is. Example of passive:
- The car was chased by the dog.
- vs The dog chased the car.
- Was, were, being, be, been, am, is, are when combined with an adjective: A single, powerful verb is typically stronger than any of the above combos. Example:
- She was sad at having to sit in the corner.
- She sulked at having to sit in the corner.
- Very: Similar to “LY” words, if you need to add emphasis in a sentence, use strong wording vs a weak adverb like “very”. Lots of editors HATE the word “very.”
- There was: This combo is ripe for swapping out. Example:
- There was a thick cloud of insects that darkened in the sky.
- A thick cloud of insects darkened the sky.
- That: Again, while this word is very natural in dialog/speech, THAT is often unnecessary and removing it can make a sentence is stronger. If removing THAT makes the sentence read poorly, then leave it in or substitute in a coma. Example of a cut option:
- Tim could see (that) his life was in danger.
- OUT or UP: When used to add emphasis, these words are typically unnecessary. Example:
- When to cut: He stood (up).
- When not to cut: He wanted to cheer (up), but couldn’t.
- Began or Start: Unless you need to show simultaneous action (such as: Just as she started to cook, a lizard jumped on her back), remove “begins to/began to” or “start to/started to” as they are just extra words that serve no apparent purpose. Just have your character do what they need to do versus begin to do it. Example:
- He began to run. à He ran.
- Again; once again: Don't overuse these.
- Still or Yet: Again, just don't overuse these.
- Filter words: Action words that serve no other purpose than to state what can already be surmised by the content.
- On the horizon, he saw a silver rocket lifting into the clear blue sky.
- On the horizon, a silver rocket lifted into the clear blue sky.
Typical filter words:
- see, saw; look, looked
- feel, felt
- taste, tasted
- hear, heard
- smell, smelled
Filter words are not always something to cut. If they show an action that elicits a specific feeling or message, then you could leave them in. For example:
- Tim trembles more and more with every step towards the haunted house. Before entering, he peers over his shoulder one last time to his hopeful parents before…
Words that need a closer look:
- Dead verbs: If a verb requires an adverb in order to make it clear or interesting, then there is probably a stronger verb you can utilize to better convey the action. Examples of dead verbs:
- walked vs ambled, tiptoed, stomped
- run, ran vs sprinted, streaked, flew
- Would, should, could – These words can often create a passive sentence.
- "Tim could feel the stink in his eyes.”
- vs "The stink filled Tim’s eyes."
- Tim could have jumped in to save her, but he didn’t want to get wet.
- There, It: If a sentence begins with `There'' or ``It'', they can typically benefit from revision. Example:
- There was a bloody knife in her hand. It didn’t seem not possible she could have stabbed him.
- vs: Blood dripped from a knife in her hand. How could she have stabbed him?
- While: Writers use it frequently as a substitute for “and” or “but,” but I’ve seen references that indicate a semicolon is preferred vs “while.”
- Not: Avoid telling the reader “not” to do something. It is better to express a negative in positive form. Example:
- not real fake
- did not remember forgot
- As “noun/pronoun” combo: Avoid excessive combos (such as: "as she" or “as Tim”) as they are often unnecessary and often makes a sentence read bland. Example:
- "Tim paid for the movie ticket as he thought about how Gina dumped him.”
- vs “Tim paid for the movie ticket, unable to stop thinking about how Gina dumped him.”
- –ing words: Watch out for words ending in “ING” within the first clause of a sentence as it implies a simultaneous action. This is a problem if the two actions cannot be done at the same time. For example:
- “Tying her shoe, she jumped up and ran across the room.” Don’t think someone can tie their shoes and run at the same time.
- After tying her shoe, she jumped up and ran across the room.”
- -ness words: A substitute for thinking of the right word. "Darkness," "unhappiness," and such come of tacking -ness (or occasionally - ion) onto words. There's often a better answer. Use it as needed.