By Kris Maze
In a previous Writers in the Storm blog post, we covered several common filler words to avoid. This post extends the list of word-culprits, along with searchable lists, to help you self-edit your writing. Take some time searching for these in your WIP and tighten your writing today.
Here are 7 insights about trimming our writing by eliminating the fluff expressions. Which ways to do you already use? Which will help you write better? Consider looking for these extraneous words when editing your next WIP.
Leading words are like pesky flies attaching themselves to the beginning of our sentences. They lead into the real meat of what you have to say.
These phrases are my common downfall. I simply love using the word so. So, sometimes, it infiltrates into my prose. It may be part of my Midwestern vernacular that trails into my writing, but in my stories it’s a distraction that should be cut. The exception to this is in dialogue or other characterization, which is considered later.
If your goal is to make your writing lean, avoid these phrases: So, Mostly, Most times, In order to, Often. These words do not bring enough impact to your story to keep them. Swat those pests and get them away from your work.
Writers like to add these direction words to common verbs like sit, stand, and go. We can avoid the extra words by taking away In, Out, Down, and Up.
We may want to say the following things, but it is adequate to cut the direction word and use a simplified, more concise action instead.
She sat down on the tufted davenport.
She sat on the tufted davenport.
They all stood up and applauded.
They all stood and applauded.
There are plenty of dialogue dos and don’ts when eliminating fluff words. We understand that dialogue is a place for making the characters sound like they actually are (or how we imagine them to be.) Inside the quotes, we add what we want to make our characters come alive. It adds flavor to our characters and allows the story to be authentic.
But the opposite is true for those dialogue tags found outside the quotes.
When a dialogue includes more than 2 people, it may be necessary to show the reader who’s speaking, but that can also be accomplished through other means.
Eliminate most of the Robert said, or she said moments with one of following methods.
“Want to go out on a date?”
“It looks like there’s room for 2 on that cruiser of a bike.”
“I’ll even let you steer.” Robert said. He tapped the handlebars and showed Cecilia his famous gapped front teeth.
“I’ll even let you steer.” Robert tapped the handlebars and showed Cecilia his famous gapped front teeth.
One common word that can be modified is went. At times it is used as a clunky verb construction, at other times it’s an example of tired writing. Something ready for revision. Keep your readers engaged by trying these two tricks.
He went fishing with Karl every Saturday.
He fished with Karl.
They went on painting the whole fence the worst shade of putrid green I’ve ever seen.
They painted the fence the worst putrid green I’ve ever seen.
2. We can use more specific words than went when describing actions. Try switching out the word went for more dynamic words of movement.
They went through the park after dinner.
They strolled through the park arm and arm after dinner.
Charlie went through the doggy-door.
Charlie wriggled through the too-small-for-a-Dane doggie door.
When using went, be certain it is the right word. A stronger word can usually take its place.
Many writers fall prey to these filler phrases. It is common to use start to, begin to, began to, begun to before the main action of a sentence. Try a search an see how many you could eliminate from your writing.
He began to breathe again.
He took a breath.
They started to mix the batter and began to have a delightful conversation over the powder sugar scattered across the counter.
They mixed the batter and shared storied over the powder sugar scattered across the counter.
If you have trouble with this one, you are in great company. Most writers struggle to write facial expressions and emotional descriptions in a new way. Avoid using clichéd writing and find ways to catch the readers attention with these important story elements.
I recommend taking a class from Margie Lawson for insight on how to write fresh. She also offers webinars and writer-super-power packets of her foundational courses. As Margie says, “Keep the writing fresh.” And then she teaches you how to create your own fresh writing in actionable ways.
Keep notes when reading your drafts of words you overuse. Search for any words that echo throughout your writing. We all have our special go-to phrases to cut. Keep a list of your commonly overused phrases and learn how to rewrite them in fresh ways.
Another way writers overuse words is by inserting body parts. The words can lose their meaning when overly used. Sometimes it covers up more sophisticated ways to express the action in a scene. Do a search on these body parts and see which ones stand out the most. How else could you write these?
Here is a past WITS post from Margie about writing fresh body language. Take a look at her suggestions and see which ones you could use in your novel.
These sneaky words have their place in dialogue and perhaps in characterization. But unless it is an 80’s teen throwback on a John Hughes scale, there is no need to add these. They dull the flavor of your writing with weak and incorrect wording. Like totally.
I hope you have fun with your editing. Find the places where you can turn dull phrases into page-turning writing, and you can soon have readers rushing in to read more.
What fluff elimination tip did you like from this post? What new ones can you suggest?
Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and young adult writing at her website. Keep up with future projects and events by subscribing to her newsletter.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.
And occasionally, she knits.
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