Welcome back for more editing fun! A quick review of the 7 steps:
- Initial Read Through
- Seek and Destroy Problem Words
- In-depth Word Analysis
- Read it Out
- Get Some Feedback
- Let it Rest
Onto step #2!
Step #2: Seek and Destroy Word Problems
It’s time to get out your editing gun and go double-oh-seven on some pesky words.
There are some words in the English language that are overused, misused, or used in vague and weak ways. Your mission is to find the offenders and punish them—with death!
The easiest way, I think, is to have a list. Then you can use the find feature in Word, or whatever your favorite writing program is, to go to each one and decide what to do with it. In some cases, the word might work and should stay. In some, it can be yanked out, and in others, it just needs to be changed or finessed a bit.
Here is my list of words that come off vague or create wordiness: that, thing, stuff, very, really, actually, quite, just, perhaps/maybe, amazing.
Sometimes you need “that” for clarity, but many times, it’s extra. Unless your voice or character are more on the formal side (which having lots of “that’s” tends to feel), you can cut a bunch of these.
Thing and stuff are excuses for ambiguity. Say what the thing or stuff is. Even if you actually don’t know what it is, you can probably find a word to somewhat describe the “stuff.” In this sentence, “He stepped in sticky goo,” is better than “He stepped in sticky stuff.” At least goo provides a visual and a texture. Stuff and things could be almost anything.
Very, really, quite, actually, and just are words that find their way into writing and seem to amplify, but most times really just actually need to disappear. See what I did there? ;) That sentence is quite fine as “most times need to disappear.” Once again, these words can be voice-specific or may come out in dialogue that fits a character, but it’s still worth searching them out to see if they’re very necessary.
Perhaps and maybe also don’t have a place in most cases, unless it’s in dialogue—internal or external. “Maybe I’ll go to the store, or maybe I’ll just go home and read,” works if it’s being said or thought, but something like “the sunrise glowed a red that looked perhaps more orange” sounds like you don’t know. Is it red or orange? Be clear.
Have you ever read something so amazing that you really just had to tell everyone how amazing it was? This is, sadly, a word overused and worn out. I’m guilty of it myself. Not so much in my novels, but if you catch me on social media, most things are amazing or awesome. It should only be used for situations that are “causing great surprise or sudden wonder,” which is what the word amazing actually means.
This brings me to adverbs. What a point of contention in the writing world! Are they evil? Are they fine? What are they? Most adverbs end in ly, but not all. They are any word that describes how something is done. She didn’t just walk, she walked “quickly.” He didn’t love the movie, he only “sort of” liked it. The biggest problem with adverbs is overuse and poor word choice. She doesn’t have to “walk quickly.” She can hurry along. She can dash, speed, rush, or make haste. Chances are, if you remove an adverb and the word it’s modifying, you can find a stronger word to use in its place. Watch these especially around dialogue tags. Don’t do this: “He whispered softly,” “she said angrily,” or “he said coyly.” A whisper is already soft, the anger should be obvious anyway, and the coyness can come out in a gesture. But, they are not evil. You can use them if necessary (which should be sparingly). But make sure it’s truly necessary.
And finally, one of the most important problem word areas—verbs! Using a weak or vague verb can take the fight out of your writing faster than anything else. Some are just plain nondescript like “got” and “went.” “I went up the stairs” can be more colorful as “I dashed up the stairs” or “I shuffled up the stairs.” Even “I walked up the stairs” is better than “went.” Still, you can probably find a better word than just “walked” to describe in what way you moved up the stairs. Take this as an opportunity to show something about the character. Is she excited? Maybe she hopped up the stairs. Is he feeling dejected? Maybe he lumbered up the stairs. Scrutinize every verb and see if there is one stronger than what you have.
And at last, we are at the weakest of the weak words—to be verbs! These are: was, is, am, are, been, being, were, be. I’ve heard it said that “was” is one of the most-used words in the English language. With each of these, as with all the words mentioned here, sometimes they just work. You can’t always cut an “is” or an “are.” What you want to look for are constructions like this: “She was telling me about her trip.” No. She told me about her trip. “Was telling” is passive voice, and it’s something you want to avoid. You want your writing to be as strong, direct, and as clear as possible. Too many of the “to be” verbs in there and the story starts to sound like your distant relative rambling on and on about her month-long vacation to Idaho.
* Special Note: To all my yinzers out there (that’s someone who lives in Pittsburgh, for all you non-yinzers), I will give this warning. DO NOT REMOVE THE "TO BE" WHEN IT’S NEEDED! One of the most confusing and frustrating bits of Pittsburgh-ese are sentences like this: “The house needs vacuumed.” If you’re not originally from the ‘burgh (like I wasn’t when I arrived 15 years ago), this sentence construction sticks out like a sore thumb. But, if you try to explain it to someone who watches the Stillers dahntahn n’ at, you might have trouble getting through. I love Pittsburgh. It’s a beautiful city, filled with amazing things, and the best sports teams in the country (most Super Bowl rings of any NFL team—that’s all I’m saying). I even love the Pittsburgh-ese, but when someone tells me something “needs updated,” my eye twitches at them a bit. It needs TO BE updated. The house needs TO BE vacuumed. Pulling out the “to be’s” in these cases doesn’t make your writing better, it just makes you sound like a jagoff.
Now that the little pesky words are gone forever, we are ready for step #3 (my favorite step)—In-depth Word Analysis
Denise Drespling is the author of short story, “Reflections,” in the Tales of Mystery, Suspense & Terror anthology (October 2014) and “10 Items or Less,” in 10: Carlow’s MFA Anniversary Anthology (April 2014). You can also find her work in these anthologies: The Dragon's Rocketship Presents: The Scribe's Journal and Winter Wishes.
Hang out with Denise at her blog, The Land of What Ifs, her BookTube channel on YouTube, or on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or Instagram.