Editing Tips: Cutting Unnecessary Words

Posted: April 9, 2016 in Writing Tips
Tags: , , , ,

At the end of your rough draft, you always secretly hope it’s perfect. There will be no typos, no run on sentences, and every last word will be pure genius. This is usually not the case and you have a seemingly daunting task editing.

Sign, Edition, Warning

Writer at work, wear safety gear.

One key to polishing a manuscript is cutting out excess words that are unnecessary to the story. Just like cutting scenes or characters, you should always be asking “will this make sense without ____?”

I will admit that I’m a rather wordy writer, but not the worst. These are some tips I try to follow to make cutting words easier.

Described and Dangerous

Adjectives are wonderful things for creating immersion. We want the reader to feel the silky texture of a blouse, taste the bitter sweetness of the lemonade, and see the beautiful cerulean of the sky. It’s so much fun to play with adjectives, but too many it can make
your readers feel like they’re trudging through mud.

The beautifully dark, succulent aroma of the chocolate cake baking in the big hot oven filled her soul with nostalgic longing.

It’s pretty, but full of unnecessary words. There’s a rule that you should only be using one to two adjectives per description. Readers are smart and know that the sky is blue. It’s not a terrible rule and I would say following it helps. There are exceptions, such as if
the sky in your world is actually green, or it’s an elf but he has three arms and six legs. (Enchanting accidents are the worst.) Even then, try to break it up into a paragraph rather than a single sentence.

The succulent aroma of baking chocolate cake filled her soul with nostalgic longing.

The revised sentence works because most people know what a baking cake smells like. Their own experiences fill in the blanks.

Find and Seek

Unnecessary words can take many forms. There are specific words I try to watch out for, but sometimes as writers we latch onto words we like. I’m guilty of this and try my best to remain aware. “Exactly” is one of my go-to words, especially in dialogue. “Realize” is another big one for me.

I realize I need to cut the number of times my characters realize things.

You can figure out which words you may be overusing by paying attention while you edit, but not always. Sometimes we’re blind and need another person to notice. If you don’t have another person, a strategy I use is when I the same word more than once on the same
page, I use the Find feature to see how often I use it.  You’ll be surprised what you learn this way.

 

Have/Had

I will never tell you to never use a word, but this combination often raises red flags with me. There are times when no other words will work. Have and had are two words that are really easy to overuse but are often avoidable.

One of the big issues with have/had is that they go together in the past tense.  You can have too many of them in the same sentence.

She would have had to have known what was coming to avoid it.

Yikes! If I read a sentence like this, I cringe. You can say this in other ways and cut words.

She would have avoided it if she knew it was coming.

You still use the word have, yes, but look how many excessive words were cut.

And Then

This is a word combination that I keep on my radar. It reminds me of that scene in that movie Dude, Where’s My Car? It was a silly movie, but little did you know one scene gave us writing advice.

This could be you. Scary, right?

Sequential events are expected in storytelling. They should be linked by action rather than made into a list. Sometimes lists are fine, but mostly they should be avoided.

The hero swung his sword and then cut off the Dark Lord’s arm, and then he cheered in triumph.

It’s not very exciting to describe your action this way. Egg, milk, butter, chop off Dark Lord’s arm, tea, yogurt.Not only will removing those words lower your word count, they will make the scene better as a whole.

The hero swung his sword, cutting of the Dark Lord’s arm. He cheered, triumphant.

Sure, now it’s two sentences but that’s okay.  It’s still fewer words than before and that’s your goal.

The

Now I’m sure you’re looking at me like I’m crazy. How can you possible use The less often? It’s one of the most used words in English. This isn’t about cutting so much as placement.

The sun rose on a clear morning. The man woke up, refreshed from a good night’s sleep. He went down stairs to eat breakfast. The coffee was already percolating in the pot. The mug he favored was clean in the dish washer and the day was looking good so far.

This is not a great scene to begin with, but it’s also made worse by being full of The sentences. Too many sentences in a row that begin with The (or any word like He or She) is boring. Starting too many paragraphs with The is also boring. Similar to And Then, it takes away from your action and pacing. That doesn’t mean you should never use The to start a sentence, just be careful.

It was a clear morning and the man awoke, refreshed. He went downstairs to find his coffee percolating and his favorite mug freshly washed. The day was looking good so far.

All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an “I”

Recently on Twitter I’ve discovered One Line Games such as #2bitTues, #1lineWed, #FP, and #FictFri. These revolve around finding lines in your manuscript based on specific themes and tweeting them for others to read. It’s a lot of fun but also a great editing tool.

Twitter’s 140 character limit is excellent for helping you cut excess words. There’s a line you’re dying to share, but it’s too long. If you can chop out a few words  and it still makes sense, you know you had too many words.

You don’t need to have Twitter or even tweet your lines to play this game with yourself. If a sentence feels too long, it probably is and you should see if it works another way.

Cutting words as an important part of editing and I hope this post has made it feel a little easier. If you have tips you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments.

If you’d like to join any of those twitter games I mentioned, follow @AngDonofrio@RWAKissofDeath@FridayPhrases, and @Gracie_DeLunac on twitter!

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Comments
  1. This was really helpful! Thanks for the great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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