Editing: 5 Words to Purge

The first draft of anything is shit.

~Ernest Hemingway

There’s no rest for the weary when it comes to writing. Yesterday, in between tweets, Facebook posts, nervous jitters, and somewhat obsessive checking of Kindle Direct Publishing and iBooks (side note: not recommended), I worked on finishing the third round of edits for my second book in the Changing Tides series. That book, working title of The Blood Mage, is set to head to the content editor on January 20th.

If this process has taught me anything, it’s that precision in language is an oft talked about but highly underrated concept. Every author has words he or she uses too frequently. These are your “crutch” words. Some are common to almost all writers (and people in general). For example, one of my crutch words is “so”. When I got The Wheel Mages back from the copy editor, I was informed there had been 495 instances of the word “so” in the manuscript. The final word count for the version that went to the copy editor was 104,117 words, meaning I used the word “so” about once every 210 words. It doesn’t seem like a ton but it is. In the final version, there were approximately 300 instances of the word (or once every 350 words or SO).

“So” wasn’t my only problem, though—not by a long shot. The following is a short compilation of my most commonly overused crutch words. I hope it helps!

1. Just:

An interesting note about “just”: I know we think we know what it means but it’s used incorrectly all the time.

“Just” as an adjective means: “based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.” This is the form of the word used correctly (mostly).

“Just” as an adverb is the form I often use incorrectly. It means: “exactly” or “very recently; in the immediate past.” Often, I use “just” to mean “simply” or “only”. Think of the phrase: “I just don’t want to do [x or y thing]”. We don’t mean, “I exactly don’t want to do” or, “I very recently don’t want to do” we tend to mean, “I simply don’t want to.”

Ex: “A knock on the door made me jump but she just sighed.” This can be revised to say: “A knock on the door made me jump but she simply sighed.”

“Simply” is actually what I mean. That’s not to say “just” can’t be used in an incorrect or colloquial way it JUST means if it can be avoided for more precise language, it should be.

2. That:

This is a filler too often used. Most of the time, “that” isn’t necessary at all and can simply be removed. My most common use of the word “that” precedes a verb.

Ex: “…the odor of mold that seeped from the walls.” This can be revised to say: “…the odor of mold seeping from the walls.”

Less words are always better. It strengthens your writing and your wallet (many editors charge by the word).

3. And:

This might be unique to me but I have a tendency to enjoy conjunctions. I like compound sentences. There’s something about them that flows better in my mind when I’m writing. By the time I get to editing, however, it’s time to cut the shit as Hemingway so eloquently put it. Oftentimes, an “and” can be eliminated by a simple period.

Ex: “They were narrowed with suspicion, and I couldn’t blame her.” This can be revised to say: “They were narrowed with suspicion. I couldn’t blame her.”

I think I use the “and” to join the two thoughts in my head but it isn’t necessary. The second thought comes directly after the first without a paragraph break in between so they are joined without the need of the unnecessary word.

4. Then:

“Then” was a killer with me with my copy edit as well. It was my second most overused word. I think this probably relates back to my love of long sentences. For some reason, short sentences sound jarring in my mind the first time I read them. Therefore, I tend to avoid them. Interestingly, “then” can be replaced with “and” in many instances (at least in my writing) so if you’re overusing “and” replace it with a period and use some of those extra ands you’re gaining to replace thens!

Ex: “I threw a ball of water into the air, then pulled my hands apart to break it into rain.” This can be revised to say: “I threw a ball of water into the air and pulled my hands apart to break it into rain.” 

Neither the word count nor the meaning of the sentence changed much but if “then” has been overused in your manuscript (as it was in mine) this is a handy trick.

5. Very:

I don’t think this one requires VERY much discussion. It’s almost always on these lists. It’s unnecessary fluff in almost all instances. Treat “very” like an exclamation mark. It will have a greater impact when it’s used sparingly.

Bonus Word(s):

Was + Verb(ing) This is common in my writing and I’ve seen it used a ton. A much stronger action combination is the simple past tense of the verb.

Ex: “His anger was eating away at him.” This can be revised to say: “His anger ate away at him.” 

Think of “was” as the flimsy word propping up another flimsy word. Instead of two weak words, combine them to create one strong word!

Double Bonus:

Could + Verb is something I use frequently as well and the advice is the same as my advice for was + verb. “Could feel” is my most common error and can be replaced by “felt”.

Happy writing!