Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s often said that editing is a process of subtraction. Write what feels right and then keep cutting what doesn’t work until you’re left with something that does. It’s not the whole truth, but as a theory it does address a crucial truth of great writing – it’s not just about what you write, but what you choose to remove.
Many authors have unique issues that can only be addressed by this kind of editing – you might overuse certain terms or struggle to write dialogue – but there are also common problems that crop up for every writer. These are the words and phrases that sap pace, weaken writing, and bore readers.
In this article, I’ll be identifying eight of the worst offenders, and offering tricks to banish them from your writing. I’ll provide examples so you can see the immediate improvement that cutting these words has, and include practice sentences so you can try it out for yourself. Before that, though, there’s something you need to remember…
Writing isn’t editing, editing isn’t writing
The quote ‘write drunk, edit sober’ is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. As literal advice it’s questionable, but as a comment on the different mindsets needed for each activity it’s spot on. Writing is about expression – it’s a purely creative endeavor, translating bustling, energetic thought to the page. Editing is just as vital to the finished product, but it’s a meticulous, detail-orientated task that requires a very different approach.
As an author, it’s easy to try and mix these two activities – to write a sentence and then rework it again and again before moving onto the next. As tempting as this can be, it usually ends up being the worst of both worlds. You’ll likely find that you lose your train of thought and creative energy, while lacking the bigger picture needed to make genuinely useful editorial contributions.
Instead, try to separate the processes. Write then edit, write then edit, and try to keep one from spoiling the other. The words and phrases I’m going to list below are poor storytelling, but they’re also common expressions that are easy to fall back on when you’re writing. Trying to pick up on them as you go – or trying to banish them from your authorial vocabulary – isn’t effective, and can prove incredibly irritating. Instead, use them with abandon as you write, then hunt them down when you edit. No matter how many of these troublesome terms you find in your writing, don’t reprimand yourself; writing is about refining creative thought into engaging expression, and every one of the words below that you cut is another step on that journey.
#8 – ‘Quickly’ (and nearly every other adverb)
Including adverbs in your writing is like adding salt to a meal; small quantities can add flavor, but overdo it and you’ll spoil the whole thing. Modern writing is more concerned with adverbs than ever before, and many of the top pieces of writing software now come with a built-in adverb detector to tell you when you’re using too many. So why is it that this type of word is so reviled?Including too many adverbs in your writing can spoil it. Click To Tweet
The answer is that adverbs are seldom necessary. They’re an immediate way of sharing how something was done, but creative writing offers better ways of communicating this information. The most obvious is in the choice of verb. Consider the following sentence:
He ran quickly ahead, looking back contemptuously over his shoulder.
While not ‘wrong’ this sentence is certainly inelegant, since it uses so many words to establish a single image. It’s something you could get away with as a one-off, but if multiple sentences are written in this style then the reader will start to get bored. Instead, choose verbs that communicate the same information:
He galloped ahead, sneering back over his shoulder.
Alternatively, consider whether the additional description is even necessary. ‘Contemptuously’ adds an attitude that needs to be conveyed in some way, but ‘quickly’ doesn’t add any specificity to ‘ran’:
He ran ahead, sneering back over his shoulder.
This logic is especially applicable when attributing dialogue. It’s here that adverbs sound most tacked-on, since they’re usually part of a three-word phrase. Below I’ve listed a few examples of adverbs in dialogue attribution, each of which is followed by an improved rewrite where the verb is used to better effect.
“Leave me alone!” she shouted sadly.
→ “Leave me alone!” she wailed.
“Just sit down,” he said pleadingly.
→ “Just sit down,” he begged.
“It’s not your money,” she said quietly.
→ “It’s not your money,” she murmured.
In the examples above, as in most cases, the presence of adverbs makes the description seem more clinical – a bare bones account that makes the reader feel removed from the situation. Proper verb use, on the other hand, makes the moment more immediate, inviting the reader in.
Adverbs can also be rendered pointless by the context of a story. Stephen King covers this in his memoir On Writing:
Consider the sentence ‘He closed the door firmly’… You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between ‘He closed the door’ and ‘He slammed the door’, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?
– Stephen King, On Writing
It’s a combination of the factors I’ve listed above that make adverbs so treacherous – you usually don’t need them and, when you do, there’s usually a verb that can do the job better. It doesn’t mean that you should scour every adverb from your story, but it does mean that you should ask important questions about whether an adverb has really earned its place.
If you want to try your hand at discerning whether adverbs need to be removed, incorporated into verbs, or replaced by context, then you can use the paragraph below for practise:
“I want to join the circus,” I said weakly. Mother sucked her teeth sourly.
“And do what?” she asked incredulously. It was a question I had been ready for, and I felt my back straighten.
“Tame lions,” I said confidently.
“There’s no money in it,” she said definitively.
“Well, I might require a small loan to get started,” I said carefully. Mother looked up at me quickly, smiling cruelly.
“Ah, now we come to it,” she said triumphantly.
#7 – ‘Forward’ and ‘Backward’
Sticking with adverbs, ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ are twin terms that can most commonly be found trying to ruin action scenes. These words are especially tricky, since authors are often fooled into thinking they help a scene.'Forward’ and ‘backward’ are terms that can often ruin your action scenes. Click To Tweet
‘Forward’ and ‘backward’ are choreographing words, describing to your reader exactly how to imagine the action. The problem is that action works best when most of it is left up to the reader’s imagination. Many writers struggle with action because they feel like they won’t be able to paint an accurate picture in a reader’s mind. Their solution is to qualify every term, describing exactly what they see in their mind’s eye.
Unfortunately, doing this often has the opposite effect. It’s easy to become too precise, losing both the pace and the reader’s attention:
He gathered all his strength and swung forward, every ounce of his power in the swing. At the last second he realised she had seen it coming, and could do nothing as she stepped back, throwing her knee up and into his chin. He reeled backward, realising he had nothing left as he began the long fall down to the canvas.
The sentence above contains too much information. It takes two separate sentences for a punch to be thrown and for it to miss. This may not seem like a problem, but writing a fight scene (or any kind of action) is about recreating the experience, not explaining what happened. The reader needs to feel like they’re in the thick of it, and allowing them to do the choreographing is the best way of making that happen:
He swung as hard as he could but she darted aside, coming back with a knee to the chin that had him on the floor before he knew what was happening. He spat blood and tried to rise, but there was nothing left to give.
Here things happen quickly, and while the key details remain the same (punch, knee, down), the reader is asked to add their own fine details. Remember that action scenes are all about saying what happens. Saying how it happens is a luxury that can get in the way of this goal, and approaching it that way will do wonders for your writing.
If you want to practise focusing on events over method, you can use the paragraph below:
The horse panicked as soon as she was on top of it, whipping its head back and around. Its legs kicked up behind it and she was thrown forward, grabbing its mane and pulling back to try and regain some control. She held on for perhaps a minute until, suddenly, it lurched forward, bowing low, and she was thrown free, tumbling spur over hat into the dirt.
#6 – ‘Very’, ‘Really’ and ‘Quite’
‘Very’, ‘really’ and ‘quite’ are all examples of false intensifiers. That is, they’re words that are meant to make something seem more extreme, but often have the opposite effect. A man who’s described as ‘very tall’ isn’t imagined any more clearly, or any differently, to a man who’s just ‘tall’. No ‘clever’ character has their reputation enhanced by being called ‘really clever’. Similarly, though on the flipside of the coin, no-one has ever been in a position where they’ll do something that’s described as ‘quite dangerous’ but would draw the line at just plain ‘dangerous’ behavior.‘Very’, ‘really’ and ‘quite’ are all examples of false intensifiers. Click To Tweet
These words are ineffective because they have no quantitative meaning – the reader can never know the difference between something which is ‘very _____’ and something that’s just ‘_____’. Worse, the presence of the word draws attention to this fact, and actually weakens the term as the reader reflects on this: oddly, a ‘satisfying’ drink will actually strike the reader as more satisfying than a drink which is described as ‘very satisfying’. One is an absolute statement, the other is an absolute statement with a meaningless term attached.
So what’s the answer? First of all, decide if you need them in the first place. Most of the time it turns out these terms don’t add anything, and they can be cut with no further changes. If you find that they were intended to create a specific meaning, then the best solution is again to give their job to a verb. This is the advice so famously delivered by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not ‘very tired’, he is ‘exhausted’. Don’t use ‘very sad’, use ‘morose’.
– Tom Schulman, Dead Poets Society
Using false modifiers is often a way for authors to subconsciously hedge their bets, but cutting them out of your story will work wonders. Statements that lack committal will suddenly become completely convincing. If it’s something you’d like to practise, then feel free to use the paragraph below:
It was really hard saying goodbye to Ben, but at the same time I was pretty sure it was the right thing to do. We hugged and he said some pretty sweet things that I hoped he meant, then I got on the bus. It was quite rainy on the way home, and I was very wet by the time I opened the front door.
#5 – ‘Completely’, ‘Totally’ and ‘Absolutely’
These terms are very close cousins of ‘really’, ‘very’ and ‘quite’, but they’re even more imprecise. They do actually suggest a quantitative value – they make it clear that a state is absolute – but they’re generally paired with words which already communicate an absolute state, e.g. ‘broken’, ‘erased’, ‘gone’ and ‘ruined’.
These words therefore only have real utility when the reader needs to know that a state that could be partial is, in fact, total. There may be a difference in perception between something that is someone’s fault (they are to blame for it) and something that is totally someone’s fault (they are solely to blame for it and blame shouldn’t fall on anyone else). A toy might be broken (it is not working right now) or completely broken (it is not working, and cannot be repaired). Even here, however, it’s just that the original terms are being misused – if the toy isn’t working but could be repaired, it could more accurately be called ‘damaged’.
Because of this, words like ‘completely’ are best confined solely to dialogue, where characters can misuse them to their heart’s content. In narrative, however, authors should strive to use more precise language. If this is something you’d like to practise, test your skills out on the paragraph below:
When he arrived, the circus was completely gone. The stalls had been totally packed away, the tent fully taken down, and all of it driven away – there was absolutely no remnant of the amazing place that had been here just the night before. He found the marker quickly and dug down, utterly exhausted by the time he was finished. He brushed the last of the dirt from the chest and forced it open. It was completely empty. Not only had the coins been taken, but his note was totally gone and the felt lining had been ripped away completely. He flipped open his phone.
“Eddie,” he whispered, “we’re screwed! We’re completely screwed, Eddie!”
#4 – ‘As if’ and ‘As though’
‘As if’ and ‘as though’ are modifying phrases that many authors use to describe the motivations or intentions of a character. They’re some of the worst offenders on the list because rather than just weakening a phrase or being superfluous, they often change the meaning of a sentence.
The important thing to understand is that when someone does something ‘as if’ they intend a specific consequence, the suggestion is that the speaker believes they don’t want that thing to happen. The below are some examples of these phrases used correctly:
He raised his arm as if to throw the ball and Rex set off running. Eventually the poor animal turned around to see his owner was still holding the ball.
It was a terrible security system, his data protected by a single easily guessed password. It was as though he wanted me to see it.
These uses are fine (if a little uninspired) because the narrator is comparing actual behavior to an apparent, but inaccurate, intent. Using ‘as if’ in this way is often a great way of creating dramatic irony, or foreshadowing a twist, which is where the problems start. The second quote, for example, could easily be used to hint to the reader that the system’s owner does secretly want the speaker to see his data. What’s important to remember, though, is that the phrase is only appropriate if the speaker doesn’t realize this.
Encountering this kind of dramatic irony, where the reader knows the intention is true but the speaker doesn’t, makes it easy to get mixed up. ‘As if’ and ‘as though’ become problems when they’re used to indicate the speaker’s appreciation of genuine intentions. For example:
The bouncer scowled at us, pausing as though he was trying to figure out whether we were a minor nuisance or a real problem.
She looked down as if ashamed, then began to cry.
Here the terms are wrongly used to describe the characters’ actual intentions. Not only is this inaccurate, but it suggests that the given intention is not what the character is thinking. Like the dog owner not throwing the ball, the bouncer only pauses ‘as though’ trying to figure something out – the accidental implication is that he is actually thinking of something else.
The distinction can be quite subtle, but it can help to remember that it’s based on the speaker’s understanding. For this reason, ‘as if’ and ‘as though’ should almost never be used by an omniscient third-person narrator – they know the actual intention either way.
The best advice is to only use ‘as if’ and ‘as though’ when you’re specifically trying to say that a situation looks like something it isn’t. An example would be:
We kissed and the sky cleared, bathing us in warm sunlight as if the sky itself approved.
Here the sky doesn’t actively approve – the speaker knows that isn’t case – and so ‘as if’ is justified. If you’d like to hone your skills with this device, you can use the sentences below:
1. He shook his head, breathing heavily as if exhausted by the whole affair.
“I’m done,” he said.
2. She shivered as if caught in a fell wind.
3. I was completely content. My worries were a million miles away, as if all the troubles of the last few months had never happened.
4. “So you’re a student?”
She looked at me as though I’d used some outrageous slur, but nodded.
5. “Are you okay?”
He looked pained, as if the question didn’t begin to cover it. He looked at the clouds for a moment before squeezing my hand. It was a long time before he answered.
#3 – ‘Then’
The word ‘then’ is like the cute, replicating Tribble from Star Trek. It’s a harmless word that, on its own, has a lot of benefits. The problem is that if you don’t keep an eye on it, it’ll reproduce, and suddenly there are way more ‘then’s than you can handle, clogging up your story and making it impossible to get anything done.The word ‘then’ is like the cute, replicating Tribble from Star Trek. Click To Tweet
‘Then’ is a constant temptation to authors because it’s a highly functional term that allows you to move on with a minimum of fuss. It means you don’t have to worry about moving from one concept to another – using ‘then’ is the only segue you need. This can be seen in the example below:
She opened the fridge, checking carefully to see if they needed milk. Then she checked the fruit and bread, throwing out a rotten artichoke.
While not well-written, this sentence is fine. Unfortunately, there’s more to write:
She opened the fridge, checking carefully to see if they needed milk. Then she checked the fruit and bread, throwing out a rotten artichoke. She noted that they needed to use the carrots by the end of the week. Then she looked through the tins, checking expiration dates.
The second ‘then’, while not itself incorrect, has now created a pattern that will distract the reader. More than that, it’s created distance – it’s the easiest, most functional way to move onto the next thing, but it does nothing for the reader. It’s the equivalent of just writing ‘next’, and shows that you as the author simply wish to move on. It’s not a good message to send – why should the reader invest in the moment if you haven’t?
This problem can extend over pages to include a dozen ‘then’s’ without the author noticing. It’s so functional, so obvious, that many writers miss the pattern as it develops. It’s most common in action scenes or technical descriptions – moments where the author wants the reader to have a clear understanding of what is happening physically, and therefore gets too exact and clinical.
Here it’s not a case of never using ‘then’, but of ensuring that it’s not used in close proximity to another ‘then’. You can avoid this by using similar terms, or adjusting sentences to flow better:
She opened the fridge and checked carefully to see if they needed milk. Next, she checked the fruit and bread, throwing out a rotten artichoke and noting that the carrots needed to be used by the end of the week. After this, she moved onto the tins, checking expiration dates.
You can practise ‘then’ management with the paragraph below:
He hauled up the anchor then looked out to sea, marvelling at the spectacle of it all. Then he laughed, waved at the tourists on the shoreline, and set off. It would be a long sail, but he could already taste the meal that was waiting for him. He’d eat until he was bursting, and then try for dessert anyway. Then he’d have a bath, ensuring he was squeaky clean. Bed would be next, for a good night’s sleep. Then it would be time to eat again, and he’d walk downstairs to a brimming table.
#2 – ‘Thought’
‘Thought’ is treated a little unfairly here, as it really stands in for directly telling your reader what a character is thinking. Whether it deserves to carry the full blame or not, watching out for ‘thought’ is a good way to tell when you’ve gone from showing to telling.Watching out for ‘thought’ is a good way to tell when you’ve gone from showing to telling. Click To Tweet
1. I wonder if she likes me, he thought.
2. Their search intensified, and Davy wondered if he could be seen from the hilltop.
In the first of the above examples, the reader is seemingly given an insight into the character’s thoughts. In fact, though, this is more likely to create distance. This is true for several reasons, but the most important one is that the reader is given information rather than discovering or deducing it for themselves. It’s also important to note that humans simply don’t think in the same way they speak – direct, written thoughts like this just remind the reader that they’re reading fiction rather than looking into a real world.
The second example is similarly flawed, as the reader isn’t allowed to have their own connection with the character. Instead the narrator is objectively describing how they feel. In both cases, the reader will actually feel closer to the reader if given the chance to intuit their thoughts:
1. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
“Do you…” he began.
“What?” she asked.
2. Their search intensified. Davy pressed himself against the ground, trying to wriggle further into the cover of the reed bed.
In the rewritten examples, the characters are thinking the same things, but it’s up to the reader to interpret their actions and words. This is easy of course – context tells us everything we need to know – but the act of doing so makes the information more engaging.
If you want to practise rewriting or replacing direct thoughts, you can use the following paragraph:
Oh god, please wake up, he thought. The machines kept up their disjointed song and a medicinal stench wound up into his nostrils. He wondered what life would be like without her, and a fresh wave of panic fell over him. I don’t want you to go, he thought, I didn’t realise it until now, but I need you. Although she couldn’t say it, she was thinking the same thing.
#1 – ‘Swimming’ and the progressive form
The progressive form is a verb tense that suggests an act is still taking place – for example, ‘I am swimming’, ‘I was baking’, ‘I’m still flying’. There’s nothing wrong with using this kind of verb if you’re describing other events as occurring during this act, however as a choice to suggest that something did or will happen it weakens a sentiment.
1. Dan was running through the burning hospital.
2. Tomorrow we will be duelling to the death.
3. Once our vow has been honored, I’ll be swimming back to Atlantis.
In the examples above, the progressive form isn’t necessary, and makes each sentiment weaker. In the improved versions below, the phrasing is more immediate and gripping.
1. Dan ran through the burning hospital.
2. Tomorrow we will duel to the death.
3. Once our vow has been honored, I will swim back to Atlantis.
It’s easy to slip into the progressive form, but this isn’t just an issue for dramatic moments. In the examples below, everyday phrases can be made stronger by abandoning the progressive form.
It closes next year.
→ It will close next year.
He’s arriving soon.
→ He’ll arrive soon.
I’m leaving tomorrow.
→ I’ll leave tomorrow.
While the difference is slight, the latter options are more definite. The character who says ‘He’s arriving soon’ seems a lot less sure than the one who says ‘He’ll arrive soon’. This is because the progressive form puts the reader in the middle of an action with no reference to when it began or when it will end. Being outside of that action, even when no start or end points are given, still suggests it as a finite, and therefore more definite, occurrence.
It can be difficult to avoid the progressive form, but getting the best version of your story may depend on you deliberately seeking it out. You can start to get in the right mindset by practising with the paragraph below:
Dan was running through the burning hospital. Flames were licking up the walls, and outside the window a crow – set ablaze by an errant ember – was tumbling past in a panic. Dan was tiring, his mind flashing back to Elizabeth’s last words to him.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” she had said. He was praying to God she had meant it.
This will improve your writing
Apply these suggested cuts to your next edit and you’ll see an immediate improvement in your writing. As I said before, don’t be stressed out by how many of the words and phrases on this list appear in your writing. Once you’ve caught them they won’t grow back, so build up your editing repertoire, learn what to look for, and consider every false intensifier and progressive form verb one more sign that you know what you’re looking for.
For more advice on drafting, check out Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It Seems. Or if you’re after more advice on being your own editor, try Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor. If you want some help, check out our editing services.
Do you have any words to add to our list, or would you like to share your own personal improvements on the practice paragraphs above? Get in touch using the comments below and add your thoughts to our community of writers.