Saturday, May 5, 2012

Novel Editing Part III: Them's Cuttin' Words

Ok, so can you tell by the uncharacteristic twang of my title, that I've been watching a lot of Firefly lately? (P.S.: Best. Show. Ever.)

But to the topic of my post ... I already talked about my attempts to reduce my WIP's word count by Chainsaw and by Pruning Shears, but today I wanted to talk about specific words that are overused and/or unnecessary. How do you get rid of 'em? Easy! Carve them out, one by one.

The Scalpel

We've all seen the lists. Five overused words! Top Ten words to carve from your novel! Comprehensive-overwhelming-list-of-words-you-need-to-cut!

So I sat down, and I did it. It was the most painful part of the process by far. Cutting the big stuff? Characters, scenes? Easy! Tightening up sentences and paragraphs? So fun! Trying to cut specific, commonly overused words? Torture! Here's what I learned.

  • Cutting overused words did improve my novel.
  • It did not reduce word count!!
  • Some words are super easy to cut, others required a total re-write of sentences or paragraphs.

Shallow Cuts, aka The Easy List:
These, are my faves.You can fly through these ones, often (but not always) with very little re-writing. While they're part of everyday speech, you can often cut them out of a sentence without changing its meaning. Here your word processor's "Find" feature is invaluable. Does the sentence read all right without the word? Great!
Find. Highlight. Delete!

  • Almost, about, around, approximately, basically, nearly
  • Back 
  • Just
  • Then
  • That
  • Very, really, truly, actually, exactly, utterly
  • Somewhat, somehow, sort of
  • Little, (a/little) bit, all
  • Adverbs (do you really need that adverb?)
  • She noticed/saw/looked (the reader knows if it's described, it's the MC who saw it)
A Little Deeper:
These get trickier. You probably will need to replace or re-write, not just cut.
  • Like
    • Is it for a simile? Is your WIP overrun by similes??
    • "Felt like" "seemed like"? The verbs might be able to stand on their own (but these are kinda weak verbs ...)
    • Other possible replacements: same as, this way, about 
  • "The [Subject] was [Verb]ing"
    • This is actually an easy one. Just replace with: "The [Subject] [Verb]ed"
      For example: "She was dancing" changes to "She danced."

Brain Surgery:
Maybe it's just me, but editing for these overused and otherwise problematic phrases was often painful, and sometimes resulted in reworking entire paragraphs to accommodate the revisions. The end result was satisfying, but the process was loooong.
  • It was/There was
    While this sort of construction can be used to add emphasis to the sentence, overuse diminishes that power, and makes the writing sound a bit stuffy. The problem is there are lots of different reasons that you might have used it.
    • She/he/it was + [adjective]
      Use action, feelings, dialogue, or body language to convey the message. For example:
      "She was tired" could easily be conveyed by saying:
         >> Her arms drooped.
         >> She considered another shot of espresso.
         >> "Please tell me this shift is almost over."
    • She/he/it was + [location]
      People, and even objects don't always just have to be there. They sit, sprawl, spread, sway, stand, lay, hang, dangle, perch ... etc. 
    • Was it too passive?
      This can be a trickier fix, but too many instances of "was" might mean you're slipping into the passive voice. Passive sentences aren't always bad, but too many can be distracting.
  • Suddenly
    While overused, taking "suddenly" out of a sentence can leave it sounding too flat. Unfortunately, reworking can be a pain. I find I'm left with a few options:
    • Show the characters' reaction to the event (check out the Emotion Thesaurus' Surprise section)
    • Provide a longer lead-in to the event, then describe the event in more dramatic detail.
    • Leave in the suddenly. Cause face it - some things happen suddenly!

Your Own Personally Overused Words:
Everyone writes differently. The words I overuse may not be the ones you overuse. How can you spot these in your own work? It's difficult to do on your own. Betas/critters can help, but if you need some instant computerized feedback, these resources can be invaluable at helping you spot problem areas:

Other Great Resources on Overused Words:
Janice Hardy - Spit n' Shine || Rachelle Gardner - How to Cut 1000 words || Vampire Words || AK - Just & Other Words that Plague 1st Drafts || Overused Adverbs, Adjectives || Overused Words || Peggy Edelman - Wordle Underrated || How Do You Know When Your Manuscript is Ready? || Words that can weaken sentences ||

What words or phrases do you think authors overuse? Which words show up too often in your own work? What tips do you have to make this part of the editing process less painful?


  1. I love Firefly. And I also love this post, definitely a good list to keep in mind :)

  2. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing these tips. Also, I've passed the Kreativ Blogger Award along to you at my blog. :)

  3. I just did the overused word edit on my WIP too. The worst ones for me are just, very, really, little and smile. Oh, and any word that begins with some.

    Thanks for the tips on computer helpers!

  4. Great post. I never thought of using Wordle to check my work for overused words!

  5. Another awesome, super-detailed post! Thank you for sharing all of these great tips :) And I love the pictures you have in there, btw.

  6. I'm gonna check the "oversued word" right away. The thesaurus is my best friend but I suppose that can only go so far.

  7. Thanks for going through this torturous process so you could pass on advice to the rest of us ;-). I'd never heard of those Auto Crit websites before either. Great tips!

  8. Hi, I'm a new follower. Thanks for finding my blog. This is a great post. I've just had to cut just about ever "just" word from my MS. I wasn't aware of all those online resources-excited to put them to work. And Firefly-I just learned about it just last last month and watched the entire thting in 3 days. I watched Serenity later, but it just wasn't as good. Okay, no more justs:)

    Great post.

  9. <3 Firefly! And this post is so awesome. I went through and did this super-tedious process on my WIP at one point, too. Now I'm rewriting it from the beginning, and I'm pretty sure I'll have to do it again. Yay?

  10. Hi,

    I've used the "Find" feature in Microsoft Word to try to minimize the overuse of words as much as possible. Is there a trick to help you know when a word is truly overused or is it a judgment call?


  11. Nice post! And I have severe graphics envy. :)

    We all have overused words, and it's a severe drag, because the reason we overuse them is usually that we love them.

    In addition to all the others mentioned, I have to watch seriously.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...