Editor’s Corner: Five words to cut to make your writing stronger

This month is all about inspiration. Let’s face it, editing is the antithesis of inspiration. It is where inspiration goes to die. It sucks out our soul and makes us wonder why we ever thought writing a book was a good idea. So my editing tip this month has two goals.

  1. Keep it light
  2. Something quick that gives you a quick sense of achievement (hence keeping the inspiration alive)

So here’s…

Editor's template

This is a super quick exercise you can do with your writing that will make it stronger. I was dubious too when I saw some of these popping up on blogs I follow. I’m with you with the ‘it’s never that simple’. And it isn’t. Don’t, whatever you do, do a search all and delete because you’ll end up with gibberish but it is a really good way to highlight some dead weight your prose may be carrying that you can cut quickly and, most importantly, painlessly.

So here’s how it works.

Press go find (Control + F on most processors) and search for the following five speculative modifiers:

  • Just – this word, in 90% of cases, means absolutely nothing. It serves no purpose. We put it there because it’s a common verbal tick but honestly, it’s padding. General rule I try to follow, I use ‘just’ as an emphasis. Wherever it appears in my books, I justify it to myself. If I can, it stays but if I can get rid of it without impacting the rest of the sentence, it goes.
  • That – this one I still have problems with. I place it on this list because I’m well outvoted by my peers on this one and there are cases where I do agree it can go. The argument is the sentence “she said that it was fine” could be written “she said it was fine” without any impact. Class discuss.
  • Seems (and other conjugations) – seems suggests uncertainty from an author. Again, it has its place in prose but is often well overused in first drafts. The key here is to remember you are seeing the story through the eyes of the narrator and/or the character view-point of that passage so the reader already knows what they see is biased by that angle. A quick check I like to do is if I can add “to her” after seemed, then it can go. So…

“It seemed as though he was nervous to be stood in the shadow of the tower.” Add “It seemed to her as though he was nervous to be stood in the shadow of the tower.” On the premise that the reader already knows they are seeing the scene through the eyes of his female companion, it can be reduced to “He was nervous to be stood in the shadow of the tower. She watched as he played with the ends of his scarf.”

Again, this is a style based choice. But it’s another good place to look for fat to cut. If the impact is stronger if it is presented with certainty, err on the side of certainty is the general rule here.

  • Almost/nearly – same logic as seems. But that said, again, don’t take a blanket approach. After all “the bullet almost hit his heart” is somewhat different to “the bullet hit his heart”. Beware of accidentally killing your characters.
  • Slightly – as with three and four, this is all about committing. Slightly should be used sparingly to emphasis nuances in the prose. The question I tend to ask myself here is “is it possible to do this thing ‘slightly'”. For example “she slightly hitched her breath” doesn’t make sense. Your breath either hitches or it doesn’t. But “She ever so slightly shifted her body away from him” has a very different nuance to “She shifted her body away from him” so again, not a blanket rule but another useful one to keep an eye on.

Thus ends today’s lesson. Hope you have a happy Monday.

Maxi 🙂