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Friday, December 5

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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