You can revise your latest manuscript to your heart’s content, but before you query your novel to literary agents or submit your short fiction to journals, trust me, you’re going to want to spend a few extra minutes looking for words and phrases that shouldn’t necessarily be there.
Last week I discussed five words you should always look for in your writing when you reach the final stages of your revision process. I would say the words “that” and “just” are the two big ones. I don’t know about you, but I write “just” all the time. If you cut out most of these words, your writing will improve considerably.
Another way to make your writing better? Beyond those five words, you should also look for awkward and empty phrases in your writing that don’t do you any favors.
Here are five painful phrases you should always be looking for…
1. For a few seconds / for a moment
I write phrases like these two all the time in a first draft in a work of fiction. They’re all over the place. Sometimes they pop up more than once on the same page!
The big problem with phrases like these is that they don’t mean much to your readers. Seriously, what does “for a moment” even mean? It tells the reader the character is taking a beat, but this isn’t a movie. How much time that moment lasts isn’t exactly clear.
Writing “for a few seconds” or “for a moment” is lazy ultimately because you should instead be writing something more unique and dynamic to demonstrate that your character is taking a necessary beat.
Example: He stared at her for a few seconds, scratching the bottom of his chin.
This whole sentence is lazy, honestly, but it’s made even worse with “for a few seconds.” What happens to the sentence when you take that phrase out? Nothing. The meaning comes across exactly the same. It’s clear a beat is being taken, so why add “for a few seconds?”
There might be one or two places in a work of fiction where “for a moment” or something similar can stay, but for the most part, stay clear of phrases like these always.
2. She knows / thinks / hopes / wonders / feels / believes
Did you know your writing improves considerably when you remove sentences that have words like “knows” and “thinks” and “hopes” and “wonders” and “feels” and “believes?”
Why? Because it’s telling, not showing.
A few years ago I learned writing gets infinitely better when you stay away from merely telling the reader things about your character. Sentences that begin with a character thinking something or hoping something or feeling something. Especially feeling.
Any schmuck can write a sentence like the following…
Example: She felt embarrassed by the incident in the cafeteria yesterday.
Again, this is lazy writing. It’s an author telling the reader something rather than showing it in an interesting way.
Don’t simply tell us she’s embarrassed about something that happened yesterday. Show us in her behavior how she’s embarrassed by it.
Same thing goes for a character hoping for something to come, or wondering what might happen next. Show us this, don’t tell us.
3. For the most part / after all / at the end of the day
I go nuts with phrases like these in my writing. Often I find that these phrases help with the rhythm of my sentences and paragraphs. But there’s one big problem with phrases like “for the most part” and “at the end of the day.”
They’re empty. They mean nothing. And they don’t need to be there.
Example: She turned away from Billy. She had no more desire to see him, after all. Their friendship was over.
See how the sentence doesn’t really change if you drop “after all?” It can be dropped because it’s empty. It’s there for rhythm, nothing else.
Whenever you’re stuck deciding whether or not a phrase needs to go, ask yourself this: does the meaning of the sentence stay the same if I cut the phrase?
In the cases of these three phrases, the answer is almost always a hard yes.
4. There was / it was
My MA thesis advisor was the first person to teach me why sentences that begin with either of these phrases should be rewritten. Like the previous example, “there was” and “it was” can often be empty.
If “it” refers to a subject from the previous sentence, that might be okay, but when you write a sentence like the following, you’re in trouble.
Example: It was the middle of the night, and Jimmy was still awake.
What does the “it” refer to in that sentence? Nothing. It’s empty.
Now, as my MA thesis advisor did also say, sometimes you simply have to open a sentence with “there was” or “it was” when referring to something like time of day. Occasionally there’s not another way to say “it was 10:30 P.M.” that to say “it was 10:30 P.M.”
But whenever possible, try not to open a sentence with “there was” or “it was.” Open sentences with those phrases as seldomly as possible, and your writing will improve in the long run.
5. She nods / shrugs / smiles / grins
Finally, phrases like these are fine, they’re acceptable, I certainly write them in my fiction from time to time.
But it will serve you well to search for phrases like these in your work and delete some of them and punch up a few others.
Again, any schmuck can write “She nods” before a line of dialogue. It’s so basic and boring. So empty.
Example: She shrugged, then turned her head toward Tiffany and smiled.
Ugh, am I right? That sentence reeks of amateur hour. What other behavior might you come up with? What’s something more unique to the character?
Sure, sometimes for rhythm, you can get away with an occasional “he grins” or “she nods” but try to be better. Try to come up with behavior that enlivens the scene, that develops the character, that shows in more detail the character’s emotions.
Avoid phrases like these in your writing, and your work will strengthen considerably.
As I said before, it’s perfectly fine to include examples of these phrases in your first draft, even your second or third draft. In the beginning you want to focus on telling your story the best you can. Get the story right first. Focus on character development and theme and pacing.
But later in the process you want to seek out empty and awkward phrases like these above examples. What makes it so easy is that all you have to do is type any one of these phrases in the search function on Microsoft Word and every example of the phrase will pop up in your manuscript in seconds.
If you have ten examples of “for a moment” or “after all” or “he nods,” you can find them quickly and fix, delete, or change as many of them as you can!
So do it. Please. You have no excuses.
Take a little time before you start querying your novel or submitting your short fiction to seek out these phrases in your work. You’ll be glad you did!
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