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Cutting the Flab: Eliminate Extraneous Words

As a marketing writer and freelance copywriter, I spent several years trimming sentences and blurbs to fit in newspaper ads and on postcards, brochures, and other marketing collateral. Then I started writing fiction again. Oh, the joy! I could wax poetic about anything, not worrying about wordcounts or keeping things trim and tidy. And since I write fantasy, well, certainly my readers would want big, fat, wordy novels to keep them busy.

Right?

Well…No.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ll still slog my way through a massive fantasy tome if the story captivates me, and I won’t care if it’s upwards of 200,000 words. But if the book is full of extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, arcs, characters—you get the point—I’ll drop it like a hot dragon’s egg.

So what’s the difference? A lot of things, but for today, I want to focus on the extraneous words in individual sentences. I see these words in all kinds of writing—published, unpublished, and independently published. Many of these words and phrases are easy to simply search and destroy, and eliminating them will make the difference between beginner-quality narrative and professional, polished prose.

“That”

Eliminate or work around the word “that” to tighten your sentences. Consider some examples:

Wordy: I wish that I could cast spells.
Better: I wish I could cast spells.

Wordy: Steel that comes from Eirya is sharper than steel that comes from Taura.
Better: Steel from Eirya is sharper than steel from Taura.
Best: Eiryan steel is sharper than Taurin steel.

Bonus points if you can eliminate an entire phrase before the word “that!” I usually see this sin more in business writing, but it could easily creep into first drafts of fiction.

Wordy: The fact was that thousands of infantrymen died in the battle.
Better: Thousands of infantrymen died in the battle.

Wordy: It was commonly known that the pub was a front for many illicit dealings.
Better: The pub was a front for many illicit dealings.

“Almost as if”

This phrase is one that feels like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I think it hedges, and it feels passive. Plus, other words often must be added to the sentence to make the phrase correct.

Wordy: The sun touched the horizon almost as if it were a hesitant lover.
Better: The sun touched the horizon as a hesitant lover.

Wordy: She looked almost as if she were going to cry.
Better: She looked like she would cry.
Best: She blinked back tears.

Okay, I cheated a little on that last one. I’m always in favor of finding a stronger verb that shows rather than tells.

Redundant Adverbs and Adjectives

I posted about adverbs two weeks ago, so I won’t rehash the rules on those. However, I think it’s worth noting an issue that can crop up for both adverbs and adjectives: Redundancy. What do I mean?

He was a lanky, gaunt man.

Pick one—lanky or gaunt. Both words mean similar things. I see this error a lot with writers who seem to be striving for vocabulary awards. One $25-word is enough.

She tiptoed quietly into the room.

Would she tiptoe any other way? If you’re going to use an adverb, make sure it doesn’t repeat an idea you just conveyed.

“Just” and Its Conversational Counterparts

I blame this sin on blogs, e-mails, and the plethora of conversational writing on the Internet. And I confess—“just” is my own personal demon. My fingers type it automatically, and I have to search and destroy. Here are a few more you can search for: Really, very, honestly, seriously, both, there was/there is, began, started, continued, about, kind of, sort of.

“Was” with an –ing verb

I’m not a “was” hater, but beginning writers often couple “was” with an –ing word, which is a weak construction. The solution is simple: Change the verb form and eliminate “was.”

Wordy: She was dancing to the music of the drum and pipe.
Better: She danced to the music of the drum and pipe.
Or: She danced to the drum and pipe.

I cheated again. We know from context that the drum and pipe are making music because she’s dancing. You can tighten your sentence by eliminating “music of the.” However, I will say that I like the poetry of the second sentence better—the rhythm of it appeals to my ear and eye. But then, I have an unholy love of prepositional phrases. Which brings me to the next point…

Prepositional Phrases

There are times when I love a good string of prepositional phrases. I think they add a poetic rhythm to writing when not overused. But when it comes to trimming word counts and making sure our writing is as tight as possible, it’s worth searching for some key prepositional phrases. You can often eliminate or combine them to tighten your sentences. Look for key phrases such as of the, to the, on the, in the. Those particular offenders indicate a string of prepositional phrases in my own writing; you may discover other offenders in your own work.

One caution: This level of editing is for later stages of your work. Don’t worry about tightening word count in first drafts or even second and possibly third drafts. In creative mode, just get the story down. On your first couple of edits, look at big things—structure, character, plot. There’s no reason to tighten flabby sentences when you might cut the entire scene! However, once you’ve revised your story to the very best it can be on a structural level, these edits will help you eliminate flab and give your work a polished, professional shine.

After all, if you’re going to write a 200,000-word epic, you may as well make every word count.

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Cutting the Flab: Eliminate Extraneous Words, 9.5 out of 10 based on 15 ratings
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15 Comments

  1. whitemere says:

    Thanks Amy – great post and made me hunt down your ‘adverb’ post too, as they are definitely among my cardinal writing sins. Also, as someone who struggles to resist the urge constantly to edit and re-edit first drafts, I particularly liked your note of caution at the end as well. Of course knowing that what’s important first time round is just getting the words down on paper and then actually sticking to doing that are two different things!

    • Whitemere, it’s really hard for me to take my own advice when it comes to editing as I go… I find myself doing it constantly! But on the other hand, if you find it’s not interfering with your creative process, it can’t hurt. I think one advantage to editing as you go is that it trains your brain to stop doing some of those things you know are weaknesses. And I will say that as I’m reading through the first draft of my second novel, I’m finding that the writing is a lot stronger than the first draft of my first novel.

      Where that caution comes in handy, I think, is for people who think every word has to be perfect the first time. It doesn’t. The story is more important. 🙂

      Glad you found these two articles helpful! 🙂

  2. Natasha Drew says:

    All good points.

    I need to go do a slash-and-burn on ‘that’ now. Major bugaboo for me.

  3. Natasha Drew says:

    I don’t do ratings very often – so I just screwed up and gave you a 1 when I meant 5. Sorry! (Can you change it?)

  4. Great article Amy!
    While getting the story down, we can let slip a few extra words, but during the editing process, when we apply the polish, these are the words and phrases we must search for and cull.
    So much easier to see them in other people’s work. Great exercise to go through our own work and find and eliminate them. Finding stronger verbs and phrases strengthens our writing.
    Thanks for another ‘keeper’.

    • Thanks, Rosalie! 🙂 Even now, I’m going through my first draft of my new novel and finding all of these sins, so obviously, I wasn’t TOO strict with myself during the writing phase! 🙂

      Amy

  5. Carradee says:

    Dialogue can have those things, and sometimes the cadence works out better with a wordy version than a tighter version—if you get too compressed, some readers will miss details—but most of the time, tightening helps. 🙂

    • That is very true, Carradee. I should preface all of my articles by saying that in dialogue, all bets are off. 🙂 I think some of these things are useful to create different character voices as well, and you can create different cadence and rhythm for different characters by making some more wordy than others.

      Very good point!

  6. Quote: “But if the book is full of extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, arcs, characters—you get the point—I’ll drop it like a hot dragon’s egg.” – I will too. 😀

    I agree with all your points. I would add, difficult, complex words (just for show) which readers might not understand. It should depend on the target audience.

    Great post and points (10/10), thank you 🙂

    • Irene, thank you! And yes, the $25-dollar or $100-dollar words just to show how educated the writer is… well, leave ’em at the door unless they serve a specific purpose. 🙂

      I tend to think we’re in this business to entertain, and while I have a pretty good vocabulary, I’m rarely entertained by people who just like to show off the fancy words they know. I’d rather hear snappy comebacks and one-liners. 😉

  7. I left this post open while I did a general edit of my story. thank you for this post. I think it’s helped to search for many of the words listed. My writing seems tighter and better balanced.

  8. Melissa Barron says:

    This is such good advice. I just spent about 20 hours going through and tightening my story (in a non-fantasy genre) based on this post, and I swear it’s a page shorter.

    One of the things I noticed is that one of my characters LOVES the word “very,” while another character LOVES the word “really.” Too funny.

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