There’s a lot to think about when you’re editing your own work.
Whether it’s your second revision or your fifteenth, you’re always hard at work on making your book better. You want your characters to come more alive, you want the story to make sense, you want the writing to have strong pacing, you want to write something spectacular!
When you’re in the early revising stages, you should pay attention to larger story issues, not words and sentences. Before you get to the smaller details, you want to make sure the story works as best as it can.
But later on, once your story is solid and your characters are as rich and complex as you can make them, then you should start paying attention to the specific words that make up your story.
I’m currently hard at work on the twelfth draft of my MFA thesis novel which I first wrote way back in the summer of 2017, and later this month I’m finally going to query it to literary agents. And the last thing I’m doing in this final draft is cleaning up some of the awkward phrasing and, yes, paying attention to every single word. I’m studying each sentence to see what words need to be there, what words can be changed… and what words should be deleted entirely.
As I slowly make my way through my manuscript chapter by chapter, these are five words I’m looking for to be changed or deleted. And you know what? You should be looking for these words too!
My MFA thesis advisor taught me a lot when she worked with me on my novel, but you know what one of the greatest things she taught me was?
The word “that” can often be removed from your writing. The word “that” is often an unnecessary placeholder!
I started looking for “that” in my fiction and soon realized she was absolutely right. About 90% or so of the time, “that” can be removed without changing anything about the sentence itself. I had written it into so many sentences for twenty years, and it almost always never needed to be there, holy cow!
Example: She walked faster so that she could arrive at the party on time.
The sentence is perfectly fine, but what happens when you remove “that” from it? Nothing. The sentence stays the same, and in some way it sounds even better.
This word will be the death of me. I use it all the time. I often use it three to five times on every single page of my fiction writing without even realizing it.
My MA thesis advisor (yes, I have two Masters degrees) was the first to teach me how the word “just” should always go. He didn’t say almost always. He said always.
Even today I have to push back on that a little bit. I do think occasionally the word “just” helps a sentence. Not only with the pacing of it but also to tell the reader something about time and place.
But I agree that 95% of the time, you should remove “just” from your writing. You’ll be shocked to see how much your work strengthens in time.
Example: She just left to arrive at the party on time.
Here’s a case of a sentence where “just” is definitely not needed. Take it out, and the sentence stays basically the same. Now if a character says this line in dialogue? Then the “just” can stay possibly. But otherwise, take it out.
This one a writer friend pointed out to me once. I’d never put much thought into it, but it makes sense. And I didn’t realize how much I was using this one too.
So often in my fiction I’ll write “she began to walk to her car” instead of “she walked to her car.” I’ll say “she started to walk to her” too, if I already used “began” earlier on the page. I go back and forth between those two goddamn words like it’s nobody’s business.
At least I don’t write “she was starting to walk to her car” anymore. Another thing I learned from a writer friend was how important it is to avoid “-ing” verbs in your fiction whenever possible. So keep an eye out for those as well.
But I suggest before you completely finish a short story or novel you should go through your sentences and search out every “start” and “begin.” Try to cut 90% or more of them, and your writing will improve considerably.
Example: She began to walk to her car to get to the party on time.
Ugh, am I right? It sounds incredibly awkward. Why is she beginning to walk to her car? Why can’t she walk to her car without a beginning or ending? Remove “began to” to make the sentence more palatable to the reader.
My high school journalism teacher pulled me aside once to tell me to stop using the word “very” in my writing. He said it meant nothing.
This confused me at the time. I didn’t understand how it could mean nothing. It meant extra. It meant extremely. How dare he hate so much on the word, honestly!
But, of course, the man was right. The words “very” and “really” don’t add anything to your sentences. They’re placeholders for something better.
Again, if a character says “very” or “really” in a line of dialogue, then fine. But if you’re describing something in your fiction, or if you’re trying to express a feeling from one of the characters, ask yourself if you need “very” or “really.” What do these words add? Like my journalism teacher said, they add nothing.
Example: She walked to her car really fast to get to the party on time.
This sentence isn’t a great one to begin with, but it gets a whole lot better when you eliminate “really.” Fast is fast. Really fast doesn’t give the reader any kind of unique image. Find something else to make the sentence stand out. How does she walk fast? Add more description.
Finally, this is a word nobody specifically has taught me to remove from my fiction. It was actually during this latest revision of my MFA thesis novel I realized I wrote the word everywhere.
I found it three times in the first chapter, and a lightbulb went off in my head that maybe I should keep looking for it throughout the chapters. Lo and behold it’s popped up at least once in almost every chapter since.
This word doesn’t add anything to the sentence. Sure, it seems like it might add a level of urgency, but it doesn’t. It’s long and ugly and brings nothing of note to any of your sentences.
Example: She immediately walked to her car to get to the party on time.
Okay, so this tells me she walked to her car right away than, what, five or ten seconds from now? Again, it’s lazy. It doesn’t give me an image. It’s yet another placeholder for something else.
There are plenty more words you might want to look for when you’re editing, but start with these.
The truth is that your writing will soar when you change or delete specific words like these ones.
You might not feel it’s true when you’re slowly working through your manuscript sentence by sentence. You might think to yourself, nobody’s going to pay attention to specific words, are they?
The truth is they will, especially those gatekeepers who have the power to say yes to your work and get it published. You don’t want to give them any reasons to say no. You want your writing to be its very best.
So every time you edit your manuscript, look for these words, and try to delete most of them if you can. Trust me — you’ll be glad you did!
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