Posted in Writing

Why You Should Just Omit Needless Words

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Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

This tweet goes beyond the advice that a single word should be deleted from your manuscript. Yes, the word “just” is almost always useless, a placeholder in a way for an otherwise solid sentence.

What this tweet was really about was the necessity to be ruthless in your editing of your manuscript, not only cutting the scenes that need to go and re-shaping the moments that still need revision, but going through your work one sentence at a time and cutting the words that do not, under any circumstance, need to be there. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing, and the advice first came from the great Strunk & White craft book, The Elements of Style: Omit needless words.

This advice sounds so simple. And also kind of meaningless. In the large scope of things, is your writing, especially in your novels, going to be rejected due to an overuse of one single word or the occasional sentence that might run too long?

Yes, it will. Or, at least, there’s a stronger possibility of rejection.

Donald Maass has a great quote in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel: “To write a breakout novel is to run free of the pack. It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments. It is to say ‘no’ to merely being good enough to be published” (12). That final line is clearly his main thesis of the book: in this cutthroat industry, where so many talented writers are trying to break in, it is not sufficient enough for any writer to simply produce a publishable piece of work. Of course it’s important to start with something great, but Maass wants authors to take that solid manuscript that gets an 8 out of 10 and bring it to a full 10. And one way to get to that 10 is to pay attention to a single word like “just” that may be everywhere in your manuscript without you even noticing.

So think of this as two steps. Whether you’re revising a short story or a novel, when you’ve hit a point where you feel like it’s ready to submit or query, go through it one more time looking only at the sentences themselves, the way they look on the page and transition from one to the next, with specific focus on any words you feel don’t need to be there. If a word makes a sentence sound awkward, or if a word looks perfectly fine but doesn’t add anything to the sentence, delete it. Now’s the time to cut, cut, cut. Don’t be precious with your words. Don’t leave something in a paragraph because it sounds pretty. The idea is to omit those needless words, and keep only what’s necessary to make your manuscript truly spectacular.

The next step, once you’re as done as done can be, is to search for a few of these problematic words and cut them from the manuscript. Read the sentence before you cut them, of course. Sometimes, yes, the word “just” can be appropriate for a sentence, and of course it’s perfectly fine in dialogue, up to a point. The other word to look for is “very.” My journalism teacher Mr. Halcomb taught me years ago that the word “very” can in every single circumstance be cut from a sentence, and so I’ve committed to that practice in each piece I write.

You also want to avoid, as much as possible, the dreaded adverb, oy, yoy, yoy. But I’ll leave the adverb discussion for another post.

Now, to be clear, when it comes to the practice of editing your manuscript closely like this, remember that indeed this should be one of your last steps before submission. Nothing’s more annoying than spending an hour closely editing a scene that three months later you end up cutting from your manuscript completely. It happens, of course. There’s a scene in my recent novel I probably revised and edited fifteen times until I ultimately deleted it from the manuscript. But for the most part, you want to try to hold off on this editing practice until the scene is as strong as you’ve been able to make it from a character and story standpoint.

At the end of the process, though, don’t slack and submit your writing before you’ve done the nitty-gritty editing work. It can be tedious at times, and not always the most fun, but this essential part will help make your writing stand out from the crowd!

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