When a fledgling writer first takes a stab at the craft, he or she is apt to make a few fundamental mistakes.
One such error is assuming that the more words one uses, the better. Perhaps it stems from penning so many papers in high school and college. After all, most essay assignments come with word or page quotas. A student quickly learns to cram in filler words to make sentences extra robust.
And don’t get me started on those lovely long words that take up half a line all on their own!
Academic writing aside, most folks who concentrate on fiction and creative nonfiction strive for the opposite. Simple, straightforward syntax rules the day not only because the writing reaches a broader audience, but also because even advanced readers tend to prefer tight, fast-paced prose to a narrative that is drags due to excessive words.
(Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. But few people gravitate toward fiction that reads like a dissertation. It’s as much a matter of tone as a matter of composition.)
The first step to tidying up a manuscript is finding the words, sentences, and even paragraphs that impede a reader’s progress. A writer must measure every phrase carefully and decide whether it moves the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by presenting pertinent information about characters, setting, and so forth.
As with most aspect of writing, the devil is in the details, and often it’s the smallest, most innocuous words that clutter up clauses.
Here are five words that appear more often than necessary and should be the first on any writer’s chopping block when tightening up his or her work:
“I did something. And then I did something else. And then… And then…”
The problem with “then” is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic value. Readers assume that, unless otherwise indicated, the actions occur in chronological order. The event in one sentence precede the events in subsequent sentences. So in most cases, “then” is redundant.
Despite its semantic shortcomings, “then” occasionally can be helpful in terms of sentence structure variation, rhythm, and clarification. Just be sure to use it sparingly.
Note: if writing in the present tense, the same goes for “now.”
Like “then,” “also” seldom adds anything meaningful to a sentence. It belongs to a family of adverbs that show a relationship between ideas, but like its relatives “both” and “either,” “also” can quickly cause sentences to slog, especially if used habitually.
Again, a reader understands that when two thoughts are separated with a conjunction—particularly “and”— the second item also belongs in the collection. The same is true for the context among sentences. There’s seldom a need to start a sentence with “also,” as demonstrated below.
Also, “too” and “as well” are just “also” in disguise.
I challenge anyone to write a story of any substance that completely avoids the word “and.” The result, I posit, would be awkward at best. But while conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” are essential to the English language, “and” can become a crutch like the others on this list.
Notice my what-not-to-do example for “then”: “I did something. And then I did something else. And then… And then…”
Not only does “and” like to tag team with “then” to create redundancy, but also it encourages run-on sentences. “And” also appears when a writer lists a series of items or actions. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with series, too many of them can make a scene sound more like it belongs in an instructional manual than a manuscript.
Consider this example:
“I grabbed my coat, opened the door, and slammed it behind. On my way to work, I stewed over the argument I’d just had with my girlfriend, swore at the sluggish traffic around me, and fumed at the thought of what awaited me at work. Frustrated and weary, I stomped to my desk.”
That’s three “ands” in three sentences, and while there’s no crime in that per se, the idea of grouping actions—and emotions—gets old very quickly. Yes, combining the verbs “grabbed,” “opened,” and “slammed” in a single sentence is quicker than dedicating three separate sentences to the motions, but employing too many of these “grocery lists” grows wearisome. Either space them out or determine which actions can be cut—and likely remain implied.
(For that matter, we don’t even need “frustrated and weary” in the last sentence because we already know the protagonist’s mood from prior sentences, and “stomped” communicates the emotions effectively on its own.)
When it comes to speech tags, “said” is very much in vogue. In fact, novice writers often get scolded for using fancy variations, such as “stated,” “declared,” “reported,” and “told.”
And yet, when a writer intersperses action or deftly uses voice—via word choice, sentence structure, etc.—to otherwise indicate the speaker, “said” just gets in the way.
All in all, reducing the number of speech tags is an easy way to reduce the word count and pump up the pace of dialogue.
“Was”—and “is,” if you prefer the present tense—can present like a plague if you’re not wary. Just because any given sentence can contain some form of “to be,” doesn’t mean it should.
Action verbs are always stronger than copular verbs.
Let’s look at that last sentence as an example. I could have said, “Action verbs always dominate a sentence, whereas copular verbs simply connect a subject to the predicate.” The semantics aren’t identical, but the latter gave me an opportunity to be more specific and more creative.
“I was so hungry that I ate the whole box.” vs. “I devoured the entire box.”
Not only does the second sentence lose a few unnecessary words, but also it is arguably more impactful because it uses “devoured” instead of “was so hungry.”
Beware of the copular verb’s clever cousins, modals: “can,” “could,” “might,” “must,” “should,” etc. Used in moderation, copulars and modals are harmless; however, when relied upon too regularly, they are bound to let you—and your readers—down.
I suspect every writer has his or her own stable of overused words or a particular construction he or she employs too often. How often is too often? However many times it takes a reader to become distracted by it or otherwise bogged down by it.
For instance, I used the “not only…but also” sentence structure three times in this relatively short post. If it didn’t serve such a fine example of my final point, I’d likely go back and find other ways to express the same thoughts.
Another example from my fiction writing is the word “eyes.” For some reason, whether giving a character’s description or trying to convey emotion during dialogue or other action, I default to calling attention to people’s eyes.
But now that I’m aware of this tendency, I always stop after typing the word “eyes” and decide if there’s a better way to proceed, possibly by employing a different sensory description.
The five little words outlined above don’t do much harm on their own. Their danger comes from numbers. Pruning a handful of these small words from a short story or avoiding them throughout a novel can add up and result in a leaner, meaner manuscript.
The best writers don’t jack up their word counts with filler words. They understand that true skill is conveying meaning with fewer words, not more.
Did I miss any other common offenders? Do you have a literary pet peeve that (figuratively) jumps off the page and pokes you in the eye? Let me know below!
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