Friday, December 05, 2014

Crossing Words Off Your List: Making the Most of Editing "What Not to Use" Lists

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm a big fan of lists, especially list of red flag words that typically indicate trouble in a manuscript. Not only are they great reminders of problem areas, they give me a place to start when I begin revisions.

I've read some great posts about the subject, (one on working past wordiness, another on shaping up flabby words, and one on using the search and find feature) and they all suggest words to hunt down and kill (paraphrasing here). I also have lists like these, and this got me thinking.

It can be very tempting for a new writer to see these lists and read this advice and think that every instance of every one of these words should be cut from their manuscript.

And that's not the case. In fact, blindly cutting "bad" words can actually hurt your writing. 

The right word for what you're trying to say is always the right choice, no matter what that word is. Most times, cutting a flabby word or finding a stronger noun or active verb is the right choice, but once in a while it's not.
  • You might want your dialog to feel flat because that's how the character feels.
  • You might want a detached and passive tone because that works thematically with the passage.
  • You might want wordiness if it accomplishes something you can't do any other way.
I'm not saying ignore these common lists or this type of advice, because it's all good information, and your novel will improve after you edit the weak writing out. I am saying it's worth spending some time understanding why these lists and these rules are so valuable. Learn to use them well, not just blindly follow the rules.

(Here's one of my favorite "things to double check" lists)

If you let a rule, such as, "never use auxiliary verbs" (those pesky to be verbs) control your writing, you might drive yourself nuts trying to eliminate every occurrence of was and were in your manuscript. Odds are your writing will suffer for it, because was is a very useful word. It's only in certain situations where it can indicate a problem. Understand what those problem areas are, and you'll be more capable of improving your writing when you do encounter them.

In general, I find checklists incredibly helpful, so I know how easy it is to want to edit when you find a great list of "don't do this" words or advice. We all want quantifiable guides to improve our writing. But before you cut a word or phrase that's on one of these lists, ask yourself:
  • Is there a better word I can replace the problem word with?
  • Is there a better way I can edit the line to eliminate that problem word?
  • Can I cut the line entirely? (often we can)
  • Am I using the problem word as a crutch because I'm not sure the reader will get what I mean without me saying it? (Often problems words show up when we try to explain what we've already shown)
  • Is this the best word for the job?
If you find there's no way you can change it, don't. There's a good chance it's doing its job and it's not as problematic as you think. Adverbs are useful in the right circumstances. To be verbs have their place and was can be as invisible as said. Qualifiers like just and only can show judgment in ways others words can't.

Just because a word often hangs out with a bad crowd doesn't mean it's bad in and of itself. Think about how you use it and if the sentence would be better if you didn't. It's more important to find the right word than to adhere to a list of "wrong" words.

Are there any words you don't use because everyone says not to? What words are on your "double check" list? Are they any words you struggle with or don't get why they shouldn't be used?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Great points Janice. As always. I use your redundant word list all the time to weed out those passive words. But sometimes you have to use "was" and similar words. Authors do use them. So I don't fret if I'm ridding myself of most of them.

    And that list of yours helped me cut 10,000 words in one of my manuscript revisions to cut words. Thanks!

  2. I consider those lists as reminders for top overused words, not words I shouldn't use. Just is one my hot words. I use it all over the place, but then when I'm looking back over a passage, I figure where the best places for it are and cut out the rest. Was is my go-to word for getting information down in the first draft, so when I'm going back over it, I'm not eliminating was for overuse, I'm eliminating it because I'm trying to work that info in better. It's not an overused word in my head; it's a placeholder word in most cases. Same effect but slightly different mindset from the way I go about getting rid of just and other overused words.

  3. Definitely just. I can't get enough of just. I just love it.

    Oh, and but. But I'm getting better about but.

    (I'll use the find and replace function and go through 30 pages or so at a time, weeding out my go-to words. Most of the time, I don't need just and but and will rewrite and make a better, tighter sentence. But sometimes, I indulge myself and leave just in--'cause sometimes, it's just the perfect word.)

  4. I'm probably guilty of overusing "was" but I'm becoming adverb-phobic. Everyone treats the -ly words like the kiss of death.

  5. Good reminder, Janice, that writing rules are not etched in stone. When I first started giving and receiving critiques in an online critique group, I assumed all the critiquers were experts and began blindly following their advice to get rid of all "to be" verbs, replace "ing" verbs with "ed" verbs, and such.

    But after a while, I started reading my corrected submissions and noticed they didn't read the way I intended them to read, because I had made a change for the worse by using all the critters' suggestions.

    Now I'm down to only using about half of what my critters suggest, hopefully only their "good" suggestions.

    I still have my proofreading checklist, and it gets bigger as I find more weak words to search and replace, but I only use it to make sure I've written the best story I can write.

  6. Once again, it's almost as if you're reading my journal and know my problem areas! My advisor keeps circling words in my manuscript. My pet words are "look," "suddenly," "just"--words I overuse. Also she circles words that are emotional shortcuts (when I use "she was angry" instead of taking the time to describe her emotion). She knows when I'm being lazy.

  7. I think this just reinforces the fact that beyond some basic formatting rules, nothing else about the writing process is prescriptive. What rules we have are guidelines, and must always be considered (or not) within the larger context of the story.

  8. Heheheee, words "hanging out with the bad crowd." Love it. This post is so true! Passive writing and those "was" and "were" verbs especially--sometimes they are necessary and useful. They aren't inherently BAD. It's just that writers use them too much, and cause weak passages where the passage should be stronger. Balance is key!

  9. This is excellent for me since I tend to be too much of a rule follower when it comes to eliminating these no-no words, which sometimes waters down my writing. I'll take more care in which words I choose to eliminate--and remember that rules always have exceptions. Thanks, Janice!

  10. This is excellent for me since I tend to be too much of a rule follower when it comes to eliminating these no-no words, which sometimes waters down my writing. I'll take more care in which words I choose to eliminate--and remember that rules always have exceptions. Thanks, Janice!

  11. Natalie, 10K words! Awesome :) It takes time to go through them but it does help tighten the prose.

    Jaleh, I like that, overused words. Nice way of looking at it. Keeps it in perspective.

    Cathy, LOL. Just and but are also on my list to check. I overuse a lot myself.

    LD, I know, and they're very useful in the right places. Poor little adverbs :(

    CiTrader, oh goodness, I've been guilty of that early on myself. A good reminder that it's not always about the rules :)

    LinWash, sounds like you have a gem of an ad visor there. Lazy words are fine for a first draft, as long as you remember to go back and fix them ;)

    Bluestocking, indeed, and that was the point. There's a lot of latitude in writing.

    Carol, exactly. I can see why the "rules" are out there, but there's come a point when you need to stop following the rules and start trusting your writer instincts.

    Writer Librarian, most welcome! If it sounds better to you to eliminate them them by all means do it, but if not, stick to your guns and trust yourself :)

  12. I am so studying all of your advice - thank you!! :) e

  13. Excellent point. In my Haunted series, I have a 13-year-old boy as the first-person narrator. Once in a while he uses "kind of" -- like something is "kind of cool." I try not to overuse that, but I think it helps capture his trying-to-be-casual voice. If I tighten things too much, he wouldn't feel as real.

  14. Amen! I have a word list I use. Often, the sentences it points me to are flabby and convoluted. And sometimes "was" is the best word for the job -- and trying to get rid of it kills clarity and makes a monster of a sentence.

  15. I have a list of words I CHECK for -- I searched the internet and found a list. I picked ones that I knew I did use and ignored ones that I didn't, because most of them were focused on business writing. Then I populated a macro in Word to highlight them. Run the macro and it's a simple matter to do a fast few and see which ones aren't needed. Some come out, some stay in, and sometimes sentences get revised.

  16. I check "that" I don't overuse the word "that," "and then" after "that" I check to make sure I don't use the words "and then" together.


  17. I actually have a digital post-it note on my desktop with a list of words much like the one you have at the top. "Just" is a huge crutch word for me so I always do a ctrl+f search for it when I write something!

  18. Elizabeth, most welcome, as always :)

    Chris, great example. Sometimes you do want a filler word because it sets a certain tone. Cutting it kills the flavor.

    MK, totally :) The things we writers do to those poor sentences sometimes.

    Linda, good tip! I never thought of using macros before.

    Donna, LOL, all of those are on my list too :)

    Sarah, just is one of my biggies, too. That and still.

  19. Excellent post as always. I do think a lot can be improved by cutting, but as you make so clear, it has to be thoughtful cutting and not just a knee-jerk response to a rule.

    1. Exactly. It works much better when we know why we're making a change.

  20. I have a long list of crutch words that I search for in later drafts. You're right, though. If we were to cut each one out, it would actually harm the story.

    1. There's a lot of technical skill in writing, but there's also the art and craft of it. A writer's ear is one of her best tools :)