Posted in Writing

Why You Should Just Omit Needless Words


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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Posted in Writing

Taking Breaks From Your Writing Will Improve Your Writing

Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

It seems so contradictory, doesn’t it? To write well, you have to allow for periods of no writing, or, better yet, a halt to the writing of your current project and the beginning of writing something completely different. It sounds unnecessary. And sometimes you love a project so much the thought of abandoning it for a month or longer seems impossible.

But trust me. This works.

I’ve written many novels over the years. Eighteen, in fact. The first half or more I would work on nearly every day for months, through revision one, revision two, and on and on, until I got the manuscript to its best possible place. I queried these novels… and nothing happened. My problem was that I wasn’t really revising the books. I was so close to the story, and to the characters, that the revisions were basically glorified copy-editing, changing words and sentences around, but never really addressing problems with the big picture.

What’s changed me a lot, along with a kick-ass MFA program, a helpful thesis advisor, and an unbelievably smart literary agent, is taking long breaks from my works-in-progress so that when I return to them I read them with fresh eyes. I’ve made a practice of late to write a first draft of a novel, let it rest for at least four weeks, and during that break time, write a new short story. I’ll do this after the second draft, too. And the third. And the fourth.

You should try to turn your attention to a new creative project, preferably something totally different from your novel. Maybe a story of a different genre. Or a non-fiction piece. Or a group of poems. Something to keep your creative juices flowing at the same you’re able to remove yourself from the world of your novel.

I’ve used this practice for the last three years or so, and now I’ve written both a middle grade novel that got me a literary agent and my MFA thesis novel my agent loves and wants to work on. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I kept up the practice of never giving myself breaks. I’d probably still be perfecting a previous manuscript that had no shot at being represented by an agent.

In his amazing non-fiction work On Writing, a craft book I try to read once a year, Stephen King recommends you take at least six weeks between drafts. This is even better than four weeks, but I do still think a month is enough to do the job. That’s enough time to keep you excited about the next revision of your WIP while you still have room to play in a different creative project.

Granted, I understand you might not always have the luxury to rest between drafts. Sometimes there’s a magazine contest that’s perfect for your story, and the deadline to submit is twelve hours away. And of course there are deadlines in the publishing world, like when you’re under contract and have only so many days to get your manuscript to the editor.

But if you have the luxury of time, take breaks between drafts, at least four weeks, if not longer. I once let a novel of mine sit for 14 months, and when I came back to it, it was like looking at the work of a different writer — I was able to approach the book as a ruthless editor, and I had a blast. You probably won’t have 14 months, but at least give yourself a few weeks, and your fiction will be all the better for it.

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