Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Tighten Your Novel with a Preposition Patrol

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A tighter novel helps keeps readers engaged in the story.

When I first started writing, my novels were long. Like, seriously long. This isn’t unusual for a new writer, and like countless ones before me, I set out to learn how to trim some of those excess words from my manuscript.

One of the things I discovered was the, “words you don’t always need” advice. On that list was “cut prepositions.”

I’d learned enough about writing at that point to know you shouldn’t heed advice without understanding the reasoning behind it, so I sat down and studied why prepositions and prepositional phrases were so awful.

What I found was—they aren’t.
They’re a lot like adverbs. They can muck up your writing when used poorly, but very effective when used well. It’s also a lot easier to say “don’t use them” than it is to explain why they can be a problem.

Too many prepositions can bloat your prose and encourage readers to skim through it.

This is the heart of the issue right here. Unnecessary words—no matter where they come from—hurt stories. They bog down the pace, clutter up the story’s flow, and even mess with the narrative focus. And prepositions are common unnecessary words that sneak in when we’re writing. We’re so used to them that they sound right to our ears. We don’t even question them.

However, prepositions do help readers orient themselves in the text.

Which is important in ensuring your story reads cleanly and readers can keep up with what’s going on. A lost reader leads to a confused reader, which leads to a reader deciding the book isn’t worth it and setting it down. So you don’t want to delete prepositions willy nilly just because someone said so. You want to cut only the ones that aren’t pulling their weight and making your story better.

(Here’s more with The Power of Word Choice in Fiction)

If you need to trim your word count, cutting unnecessary prepositions shortens a manuscript without changing anything.

Cutting prepositions is on my first-round edit pass when I need to bring my word count under control. I can usually eliminate 1,000 words with this pass alone. That might not seem like a ton, but add that to cutting adverbs, trimming crutch words (such as like, just, only), and tightening “to be” verbs, and that might save me up to 5,000 words on a 100K-word manuscript.

(Here’s more with Lighten Up! Cutting Down Your Word Count)

Let’s dig in and explore how prepositions and prepositional phrases work with (and hurt) your writing.

For those who haven't been in English class in a while, a preposition is kind of like a stage director. It shows the relationship between words and phrases and how they connect to each other. Often it's a physical or spatial distinction, such as:
  • Bob put the knife on the table.
  • The zombie brains splattered above the door.
  • In the courtyard, three zombies tried to chew through an old Barcalounger.
The prepositions help readers understand where things are and how the characters interact with them.

The most common prepositions are: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, out, outside, over, past, since, through, throughout, till, to, toward, under, underneath, until, up, upon, with, within, and without.

You're probably looking at that list and thinking, "Holy cow, I use those words all the time. How could I possibly edit them out?"

Don’t worry, you don't have to edit them out. If you like the rhythm of a sentence or think the line sounds or flows better with the preposition, then leave it in. But take a closer look at where they are and what they're doing for you, because you can probably chop a bunch out and tighten your prose. For example:
I crept through the door and into the warehouse.
There's nothing wrong with this sentence. It's active, something's going on, there's a sense of fear if the narrator is creeping. But notice that "through" lurking so close to the "into" there. You could easily tighten this sentence up with a few word cuts.
I crept into the warehouse.
This is a teeny change, but make enough of them, and your whole book gets tighter.

That's the sneaky thing about prepositions. They flow well, they rarely jump out as “wrong,” but they're found in places you can usually edit for cleaner prose.

(Here’s more with Get Over Overstating: Trimming Unnecessary Words in Your Manuscript)

Let's look at some common prepositions you can usually cut.

Up and down.

In most cases the direction is implied, so the preposition is redundant.
Jane fell down on the ground.
Unless Jane fell up, readers will assume she fell down, especially when paired with the word ground.
Bob climbed up the stairs to the third floor, the shotgun at the ready.
Climbing stairs typically means up, so the word isn't needed.


Of is a great word to search for when you need to cut words.
She went to the back of the building becomes She went around back or She went behind the building.
One easy cut takes you from eight words to four or five words.


This word often creeps into prose and shifts the tone from showing to telling. By eliminating the preposition, readers can see the action and the scene comes alive.
The zombie lumbered toward Bob. Since he didn't have his shotgun with him, Bob grabbed the axe and chopped the zombie's head off.
The zombie lumbered toward Bob. He reached for the shotgun. Crap! The dang thing was over by the bed. He grabbed the axe and swung it at the zombie's head.
These are minor tweaks, but they can help pick up the pace and streamline a story, or trim out words if you need to bring down your word count.

(Here’s more with 7 Words That Often Tell, Not Show)

Doing a preposition patrol can be time consuming, but it helps you turn good prose into great prose.

And that’s what it’s all about, right? We want our books to be the best they can so they have the best chance of selling, either to an agent or editor, or directly to readers. Clean, tight prose improves a novel overall, and that might be the difference in landing an agent or getting a three-start review versus a four-or five-star review.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and look for prepositions in one of your chapters. Delete the ones that aren’t necessary and edit to make the ones you do need stronger (where applicable, of course!)

Do you ever edit for prepositions? What words do you notice sneaking into your work that don't need to be there?

*Originally published August 2010. Last updated January 2024.

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View ProblemsFixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I've never realized that you can tighten your writing by cutting prepositions! Thanks for this post. :)

  2. It may be time consuming but well worth it. Thanks for the simple examples. The changes are easy to see.

  3. Excellent post! And a timely reminder for me as I am on a mission to cut words.


  4. The "boss" I've worked with for the past 20+ years seems to love the prepositional phrase. He seems to try ending every other sentence with one.

    "On a monthly basis" is his favorite.

  5. Oh no! Now I've got to go on patrol for pesky prepositions as well as adverbs and adjectives. ;) I'm at the stage of polishing and deepening the meaning of each sentence and this was a great reminder. Thanks!

  6. I love this post. I think I read it once before, but you are so useful. Great way to tighten the prose.

  7. Thanks for suggesting this. I'm revising and cutting now so I'll be checking for this. As usual, your examples are so helpful.

  8. You could teach a master-class. I have a writer-crush on you! A wri-mance, if you will. Thanks so much for these super-useful posts.

  9. Thanks all! I know when I was reading all the writing books and trying to figure out how to write and revise, I always got frustrated at books that gave general advice but no practical applications. So I try hard to find things readers can take away from the blog and put to immediate use on their manuscripts. And they're good reminders for me, too! I'll be doing this prep hunt next week as I do the final polish before I send S3 to my editor.

  10. ...I actually think this is much of what I'm doing in my rewrite of my traditional fantasy WiP. Er, well, this and making my narrator less cloying.


  11. I thought I was the only one on preposition patrol! So WONDERFUL to meet you. Thanks for sharing this important info.

  12. I've been scratching my head, trying to figure out how to make my current scene snappier. It seems lukewarm despite high level of conflict. I think this is exactly what needs tweaking! A huge thank you!

  13. Most welcome! Glad the post found you when you needed it :)

  14. Do you recommend any other resources for propositions? I'd love a longer list, and maybe a book on this subject!


    1. I don't sorry. You could Google a list. I'm sure someone has one somewhere. maybe part of an English class.

  15. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  16. Oooh, I need to do a round of just cutting this sort of thing. One of my bad habits. I have a long list of bad habits :)

    1. As long as you have a list you can remember to fix them :) I love lists.

  17. Enjoyed your post. Useful information for writing tight sentences that I can use right now.

    1. Thanks, that was the goal. Always nice to hear when I get it right (grin)

  18. HI Janice
    In response to your CTA, I will now! This is another thing I've just begun to pick up on, and edit as I go along. I do, however, have no doubt that a little exploring will turn up a bunch of the tricky buggers. :)

    1. I find a lot during revisions when I'm actively looking for places to tighten.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. -cheers- I love this, thanks for explaining this so well, now I'm going to make a list of these words and see what ones can be removed.

  21. Do you have all of these tips in a book? If you do, please let me know

    1. It's in the works, actually. No firm release date yet, but it should be early in 2016.

  22. I'll admit that I never thought to do a pass edit just for prepositions. Over the years, I've learned to write tighter sentences on the first go, but I know I have some lazy days so this is still good advice.

    1. I like passes for specific things. It just makes it easier to focus and not get distracted by the story.

  23. Awesome post, Janice. Thank you!