In my ferocious self-editor course taught in the Jerry Jenkins Writers’ Guild, Jerry preached to always eliminate needless words.
Something I like about Jerry Jenkins is that he practices what he preaches as I opened each of his Left Behind books and put them to the test. Yep, they’re written in his minimalist (and I mean that in a good way) method.
And thus, I’ve compiled a list of words you can do without.
Why these words?
Because they’re weak and they’ll motivate readers, or if you go the traditional route editors, to reject your work in favor of another.
Pay attention to this article because it’ll dawn a new age of enlightenment into your writing career.
Words to (Almost Always) Avoid
Here is my list and I’ll explain my reasoning along with each listed word.
1. That: Only use ‘that’ for clarification. Use the ‘Find’ tab in Word or whatever processor you use, type ‘that’ into the search bar, and read every sentence to see if ‘that’ can be eliminated. If the sentence reads better without ‘that,’ eliminate ‘that.’
2. Suddenly: Suddenly, she saw a shadow man. Does this read any different than ‘she saw a shadow man’? Suddenly, he realized it was all a ruse. Well, from these characters’ points of views, here’s how a good author words these sentences: A shadow man appeared. As for the second sentence: It was all a ruse. The shorter the sentence, the more power it holds, and suddenly you’re realizing suddenly can be axed.
3. Just: He just took it past the plane. Again, either the running back took the ball past the plane or he didn’t. Here’s how you can remedy the sentence like this and any other with ‘just’ in it. The nose of the football broke the plane. Yes, he just took it past the plane, which is nice, but ‘just’ won’t do the reader justice for imagery in the mind. Just get rid of just.
4. Very: She ran very quickly downfield. Amateur. If I mentored a writer and they wrote a sentence like this, the red pen’s coming out with a fat explanation as to why I crossed it out. She darted downfield. She sprinted downfield. Very is very lazy writing. It’s very amateurish. There are very good word options to substitute ‘very’ with. That was very good. No, that was spectacular. Magnificent. Sensational.
5. ‘ly’: Yes, the good old annoying adverbs. Notice very once again. The reason I placed ‘ly’ after ‘very’ is because of very ‘quickly.’ Todd is writing this article very ‘blatantly.’ Sometimes, I think he writes things ‘angrily.’ Does this sound ‘remotely’ professional to you? ‘Luckily,’ I remedied this mistake after a course on how bad adverbs are in writing, Dear J.K. Rowling, you can ignore this tip because your readers will ‘dutifully’ read any sequel to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was an awesomely awesome book. Man, that’s a lot of adverbs.
6. ‘ly’ after dialogue tags: I’m not done with ‘ly’ yet because when someone says something ‘eagerly,’ or ‘angrily,’ or ‘heatedly,’ or anything of the sort. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s also telling and boring me and about a million other readers half to death. Remember my action article? Show me the action! If someone’s heated or angry, let them slap their hand off the table with their face beet red like my seventh-grade principle once did when someone tore the stalls off the boys’ bathroom door when I attended Stanton Middle School in Hammondsville, Ohio! Where’s Hammondsville? It’s in the middle of Jefferson County, Ohio. Where? Way out in the sticks.
7. Dialogue Tags Other Than ‘Said’: Yes, please, 90% of the time, you shouldn’t use anything other than ‘said.’ Dialogue tags that include ‘wheezing,’ ‘grunting,’ ‘coughing,’ ‘croaking,’ and anything related, please, just say said. People don’t wheeze words. Have you ever heard people wheeze words? In Northern Knights, I thought more variety was better and I ended up scouring the manuscript twice to ax the additional dialogue tags. I used two additional tags: ‘mouthed,’ and ‘whispered.’ Even if someone yelled, I used italics. The reader will catch on, trust me and trust them.
8. Only: Well, we ‘only’ have one more to go. ‘Only’ two of you will make the cut and join the team. It’ll ‘only’ take fifteen minutes. Get rid of only, please. I’m not saying I don’t use the word, but like ‘that,’ nine times out of ten you don’t need it. In Northern Knights, I had almost six-hundred instances where I wrote ‘only,’ and went on an ‘only’ witch hunt soon after.
9. By: If you read Northern Knights and Swords of Destiny, I admit I didn’t edit all these out. One day when I rebrand the series they’ll be axed, but right now they remain. Not in droves, though. ‘By’ is a sign of passive writing. Now, you might have a character who speaks passive language, but again, use the ‘Find’ tab and do what you’ve done for the first eight examples. Find ‘by’ and get rid of it if you can help it. Sentences containing ‘by’ can almost always be written in an active manner, eliminating the word.
Don’t Make the Mistake
Please, don’t make the same mistake I made once upon a time and think more words are better. More words aren’t better, and they’ll make your story weaker.
Fewer words add power.
Now, I can see what some of you are thinking. Yes, I can see your thoughts even if I’ve never met any of you unless you’re my mother reading this post during her lunch hour.
Here is your thought: Won’t this cut my manuscript in half?
It can. It depends on how much editing you have to do because this post isn’t it.
I’m talking about helping verbs and passive writing next, which is sure to cut your manuscript deeper in half.
Don’t worry, because once I’m finished lecturing you all about the bad stuff, it’ll open the door for some new opportunity. In fact, you’re going to like this, I guarantee it.
But for now, challenge yourself and get rid of the words I listed above unless the sentence reads better with them in.
It’s why I placed (almost always) where I did. Sometimes, we need ‘that’ to clarify, or ‘just’ if no other word or phrase works. Use your intuition, but most of the time, we don’t need these common words.