of Extra Words—Part One
by Nann Dunne
An important editing step that
often is overlooked or carelessly done is the deletion of
Let’s rewrite that sentence: Deletion of unnecessary words is
often carelessly overlooked.
Has the meaning changed? No, but the writer has pared nine
useless words, allowing a more concise delivery of the same idea. So
what? you might ask. Doesn’t a fatter book command a greater price?
Yes, it does in some cases, but do you want the "fat" to be what
adds pages to your book? Won’t readers be better served and more
appreciative when a book contains concise, well-crafted writing? I
know editors will be.
Understand, this doesn’t mean to aim at short, barely expressive
writing. Perhaps your style produces long, involved sentences and
extended, descriptive passages. By all means, stick to whatever
style works best for you. But make your words count. Each word
should add vitality to its sentence; each sentence should support
some phase of your story, whether it be plot, character development,
Look at your scene as though you are painting a room. A painter
(author) considers what color to use in reference not only to the
room itself (story structure), but also to the home’s overall color
scheme (plot). Properly chosen implements (characters) determine the
application (texture) of the paint. A touch of other colors planned
for trim or furnishings can add contrast and highlights (conflict).
After the painter has applied a first coat of paint (draft), the
second and third coats (story revisions and editing) cover blemishes
and increase the beauty and strength of the finished product.
Touchups (bridge sentences or scenes) correct spots where the paint
hasn’t blended well. Then what happens? Cleanup (final editing).
Drips, spatters, and errant brush strokes (excess words!) need
sanded, scraped, and wiped with paint remover (deleted). The painter
has produced a clean, polished, beautiful job—one in which to take
Authors have an advantage over painters: extraneous words can be
removed at any point. For some, it’s easiest to do as they write;
others do it in sections or at story completion. Whichever method
works for you, here are some areas to consider for change or
Words. Many words we use through habit can be deleted without
changing the sentence’s intended meaning. Here’s a short list with
corresponding examples. Once you get the idea, you can search for
other overused words peppered throughout your own writing.
1. "the" – can often be deleted
Wordy: The best way to capture the ideas that come to you
throughout the day is to jot them down in the notebook you keep in
your pocket. (Four "the"s indicate a dire need for editing. Every
time you see "the," it should be scrutinized for possible
Edited: Capture new ideas by jotting them down in
your pocket notebook. ("throughout the day" is usually superfluous
and can nearly always be deleted.)
2. "that" – can often be deleted
Wordy: Remember that you can use dialogue to show that the
character has developed.
Edited: Remember, dialogue can show
3. "now," "well," "so," "also" – These tend to be introductory
words. You can use them in dialogue, if you wish, but sparingly; and
use them rarely in narrative or exposition.
Wordy: Now he knew what to do, because he had also figured out
Edited: He knew what to do, because he had figured
out their motives.
4. "seem" – In most instances, write what really happens, not
what "seems" to.
Wordy: Her breath seemed to catch in her throat.
breath caught in her throat.
5. "still" – can often be deleted
Wordy: No matter what happened, he still wanted to go
Edited: No matter what happened, he wanted to go home.
6. "located" – can often be deleted
Wordy: The library was
located at the corner of Johnson and Main Streets.
library was at the corner of Johnson and Main Streets.
The list goes on and on with "of," "to," and "and" making an
appearance, too. When you discover you are overusing extraneous
words, make your own list. When your manuscript is complete, use the
Search feature with each word on your list and decide which actions
will improve your story.
A later article will deal with extraneous phrases. In a lighter
vein, check out these oxymorons (phrases of two contradictory
And two of my favorites:
Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook (a work in
Back to Article