Prose Tips: Be the Biggest Loser

Avoiding empty words and cutting  unnecessary words are two fantastic things you can do to immediately improve your writing.

Even if you already do this, check again. Empty and unnecessary words slip by even the most watchful writer. Actively avoiding these kinds of words helps, but searching for them and cutting them out is a normal part of the revision process.  Hunt them down and hack them out.

Empty words include words like there, is, are, this, that, etc. Rather than being content-bearers, these words are grammatical markers carrying little meaning themselves. Starting a sentence with “There are” or “there is” weakens the sentence and makes the writing unwieldy and vague. Cutting out these power-drains in your sentences will noticeably improve your prose. For example: “There was a loaf of bread on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection” can be easily revised to read “A loaf of bread rested on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection.” Adding an action verb can fairly easily solve the issue.

Most uses of the word “that” are unnecessary as well. “The girl waited for the train that she was sure would never come” becomes “The girl waited for the train she was sure would never come.” Use ctrl-F to highlight each use of “that” in your writing, and check to make sure you’re only using it when absolutely necessary. If it seems necessary, see if you can rewrite the sentence so it isn’t.

Cutting unnecessary words is a bit broader topic. Writing good fiction (and nonfiction) requires condensing. Many writers use rambling phrases to say what could be said in a word or two; knocking these out and replacing them with concise, punchy words is necessary to brighten your prose. Of course, many fantastic writers use long, flowing sentences- but every word is necessary and specific. Don’t use more words than you need to say what you mean. “Grover walked slowly over to the counter, picked up a knife from the knife block, and cut back and forth through the loaf of bread” is much better as “Grover strolled over to the counter, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread.”

Right now that sentence reads like an action beat to break up thoughts or dialogue. If the event is an important moment for the character or is meant to carry metaphorical meaning or subtext, much should be cut or rewritten. The sentence probably still contains detail that doesn’t matter, even though it’s condensed. If what matters is the bread being sliced, then we may not need to hear about Grover walking or choosing a knife. The fat needs trimmed. “The knife rasped through the crust, breaking apart the loaf” is a more specific image conveying similar information.

To avoid unnecessary words, think about what has to be conveyed and why- and then say it in as few words as possible. Linking words together to get Grover from point A to point B waters down the prose and simply doesn’t grab your reader. Make sure the words you use are necessary. Keep in mind “necessary” doesn’t deal with simply the information conveyed- tone and voice play into what words are necessary, too.

Don’t let your sentences be candidates for a reality TV weight loss program. Say the same thing in fewer, more specific words, and your sentences will be better off. Avoid words that don’t add meaning. Your readers will notice the difference.

Do you have a favorite editing trick or tool for cutting the fat out of your writing? Tell me about it!

10 thoughts on “Prose Tips: Be the Biggest Loser

  1. This is useful if treated as suggestions, not a rulebook. Eliminating unnecessary words – fine. But following rules like these religiously can lead to clumsy writing. If “that” is necessary, instead of recoiling in shock from it, accept it. Rewriting the sentence may create something free from the words you’ve been taught to avoid, but clumsier and maybe longer.

    As for IS and ARE – how on earth can they be written out without grotesquery? Writing “he’s” instead of “he is” is still preserving the verb – just abbreviating it.

    • I agree- nearly every rule about writing is subject to context and the writer’s judgment. Taking anything to an extreme will most likely cause a whole different problem. Sometimes words like these will be necessary for purposes of tone or smooth writing- but writers should still check to make sure their presence is justified.

  2. Hi- Great post. I highlight words I know can be evil, many of which you said, like ‘that’ ‘there’ ‘it’ etc, and check on those as I go through.

    Actually found you through the ‘tall tales’ blog – I followed the links to a few people who entered the competition, as I am newly blogging and seeking to make connections with other YA writers! I have followed you 😉

  3. Very helpful! Your suggestions also help in transforming the writing from telling to showing….helping it become more visual.
    thanks!

  4. Very good advice. Thanks for the tips. I’m sure I use the word “that” more than I should. Condensing our writings is a very good thing to learn to do. If only we all could learn to be our own editors. It can be done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s