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, you’re going to want to spend a few extra minutes looking for words and phrases that shouldn’t necessarily be there.
Here are five more awkward and painful phrases you should look for…
1. The fact that
Here’s a phrase people use in real life all the time. And if you have a character who says it in your story here and there, then that’s fine.
The problem with a phrase like this is that it’s meaningless and wordy. You can usually shorten it to something simpler.
Example: He would have been faster getting to his car except for the fact that he was talking on the phone.
Ugh, am I right? It’s so wordy. So ugly. And a sentence like this smacks of amateur hour. What happens when you remove “for the fact that?” Nothing. The sentence is shorter and clearer. And the idea stays the same.
Whenever you’re in doubt, take the phrase out. And see if anything changes. If it doesn’t, it needs to go almost every time.
2. In order to
I’ve been catching this phrase a lot in my new young adult thriller I’m currently self-editing. It’s certainly not as empty as “the fact that.” There’s a bit more meaning to this particular phrase.
It’s still worth changing, however, because “in order” is often unnecessary, and it can often stink up an otherwise decent sentence.
Example: He walked fast to his car in order to arrive at the party on time.
Yes, we understand what this sentence is telling us, but is there a way to shorten it? What if you remove “in order” and keep the rest of the sentence the same?
Well, look at that, it stays exactly the same. And the rhythm of the sentences improves, too. I’m not sure if there’s ever going to be a case where you need “in order to” rather than just “to.” Something to think about.
3. Whether or not
Here’s another one I use often. I’ve been saying this phrase for so long in my own life oftentimes it creeps into my fiction writing, and I have to seek it out in the editing stage.
The first word of the phrase is usually fine. The sentence usually doesn’t make sense without the “whether” part. But do you need “or not” as well?
Example: He wasn’t sure whether or not he would arrive to the party on time.
You read a sentence like that, and, as in the case of the previous examples, it makes perfect sentence, but it can still be improved. It can be shortened and say the exact same thing.
Cut “or not” out of there and what do you get? A much better sentence!
4. In terms of
Here’s a phrase that will get you a few extra words in your manuscript if they’re needed, but, like with our other examples above, it doesn’t add up to much.
What is this phrase really saying? Nothing. It’s meaningless. It’s pointless. And it won’t make your readers happy.
Example: In terms of how slow he was walking, he wasn’t sure if he’d make it to the party on time.
Oh, man, what a godawful sentence. I’ve probably written a few sentences like that one before, and I sure hope I changed them in time!
Change a sentence like this one to “He was walking slowly and wasn’t sure if…” and you have a better, if still not great, sentence. Make each sentence of yours clear and direct and try not to dress it up with awkward phrases like this one.
5. All of the
Here’s something that took me well into my graduate school days to learn: in phrases like this one you don’t need the “of.”
But we still add it in our lives and on the page, even when you clearly don’t need to.
Example: He walked with all of the strength he could muster to get to the party on time.
Again, not a great sentence, but it’s made a little better with the elimination of a single word: “of.” He doesn’t need to walk with all of the strength. He can walk with all the strength. “Of” doesn’t add anything there. It makes for wordiness, pure and simple.
Sometimes you don’t need “all” either, remember that. Sometimes you can get your point across with even fewer words in the long run.
Avoid phrases like these five in your writing, and your work will strengthen considerably.
As I said before, it’s perfectly fine to include phrases like these 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. Focus on character development and theme and pacing.
But later in the process you want to seek out empty and awkward phrases like these, 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 phrases like these in your work, and your writing will improve more than you know.
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