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May 2009 Written Word

Unnecessary Words

 

Books on writing often advise the writer to cut unnecessary words, but what are these needless words? Here are a few that make up my list; there are more:


Weeds

Like weeds, this group pops up unnoticed. Eliminate as many as you can without changing the meaning of the sentence. 

 

That

Just

Only

Very

Really

Some Adverbs (See below)

Some Adjectives (See below)


Then – Watch for wordy constructions such as "she then went into the dining room.” Does deleting then change the meaning? If not, it is an unnecessary word. How many sentences begin with "Then?” Too many?

Worn- Out Words

Some words and many phrases (clichés) are worn out from overuse. For most of them, it is best to substitute something more descriptive. 

 

Pretty/beautiful/ugly: It is more effective to paint a picture so the reader can see what is pretty, whether that is chestnut hair flowing to someone's waist, a majestic mountain, or a field of golden grain. Ugly is the reverse side of the pretty coin; handle it the same way.

 

Good/bad:  These overused adjectives say nothing and are best omitted. "It was a good day.” "They ate a good dinner." Either in a scene or a narrative summary, the writer will need to give details.

 

Suddenly or All of a sudden: When a rock crashed through a window or a bullet thuds next to someone, the action is by its nature sudden. The scene gains nothing by the addition of suddenly.

 

Qualifiers

The following words can weaken drama:

Almost

Nearly

Just about

Kind of

Sort of

A bit

Somewhat

 

"The car almost went over the cliff." Consider whether the story would be stronger if the car skidded along the guardrail. What would happen if it went over the cliff?

 

"She was sort of bewildered." "He felt somewhat sick.” Sick and bewildered are states of being. Like pregnancy, either a person is that condition, or not. Of course, the narrative can go on to explain that the sickness is mild, but if a man is sick, he's sick and that's that. 

 

Adverbs and Adjectives

"A shiny red Toyota Camry" or "a shiny new red Toyota" should be sufficient to identify someone's car. "A shiny, brand-new, red 2008 Toyota Camry" has an overabundance of adjectives. Two or three of them are usually enough, and more detail can be added later.

 

Sometimes adverbs hide a better verb. For example, "He ran fast.” Why not say, "He dashed" or "He sprinted?" Both of these verbs are less common than 'ran' and identify the action without the unnecessary addition of 'fast.'

 

Explaining Dialogue Scenes

Words, body language, expressions, mannerisms and actions should show a character's mood. If a woman screams at someone and throws her shoe, the reader gets it—she's mad. Adding the unnecessary tag, "She was very angry" is retelling something that the author has already shown.

 

These guidelines may help some writers cut unnecessary words, but all of us have pet phrases and words that we unconsciously repeat. Be on the lookout for those, too. 

 

NORMA