When revising any piece of writing — a novel, a news article, a blog post, marketing copy, etc. — there are certain words I delete to make the text stronger and cut my word count. When I’m writing a novel, one of my last drafts focuses on cutting these “filler” words. Removing them helps speed up the pacing of both action and dialogue. In my business writing or blog posts, cutting these words makes the content feel more polished (at least, IMO!). While this might not be the ultimate list of all words you could remove, these are the ones I personally look for when I’m revising, so I thought other writers out there would find this helpful! Also, my examples below might be exaggerated, but I hope they get the points across.
Always remember, though, that there is no one correct way to write. Writing is art, and it’s always subjective. If you want to include these words in whatever context (e.g. to make dialogue sound more natural) that’s 100% your call! This is just my personal list of words I try to limit my usage of as much as possible, and I’ve shared it here in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
Words you should delete
Really, very. These are useless modifiers. You should be able to find stronger verbs or adjectives for whatever you’re trying to enhance. For example, “He ran very quickly along the really long field.” can be, “He sprinted across the vast field.”
That. If a sentence still makes sense after removing “that,” delete it. For example, “This is the most amazing blog post that I’ve ever read.” can be, “This is the most amazing blog post I’ve ever read.”
Just. I have a hard time removing “just,” especially in dialogue. But for the most part, you don’t need it, and too many can make your dialogue or prose repetitive.
Then. When showing a sequence of events, either remove “then” or try using “and” instead of “then.” Using “then” frequently sounds repetitive and even juvenile. “I shut the car door, then tripped over the sidewalk. Then Bob pointed and laughed, and then my cheeks flushed.” sounds better as, “I shut the car door and tripped over the sidewalk. My cheeks flushed as Bob pointed and laughed.”
Totally, completely, absolutely, literally. These words don’t add information to a sentence. For example, “The box was completely full of clothes.” reads the same as, “The box was full of clothes.” or better yet, “The box was stuffed with clothes.”
Definitely, certainly, probably, actually, basically, virtually. Again, these words don’t add information. If the sentence makes sense without these words, remove them.
Start, begin, began, begun. These words are unnecessary unless an interruption to the action soon occurs. But for the most part, you can remove these words.
Rather, quite, somewhat, somehow. A movie doesn’t have to be “rather dull,” it can just be “dull.” Delete!
Said, replied, asked, and any other dialogue tag. Dialogue tags slow your pacing and distract readers from the conversation. You can keep these tags for the first couple sentences of dialogue, but once you established who says the first couple lines, readers can follow the conversation back-and-forth for themselves. Also opt for surrounding dialogue with action instead of dialogue tags. Action will let us see what the characters are doing besides talking, and offer character trait information as well. For example:
“I don’t know where I’m going,” said Derek.
“You have a map,” said Ramona. “Figure it out.”
“Haven’t you been here before?” asked Derek.
“It’s been twenty years,” said Ramona. “How am I supposed to remember?”
Derek frowned at the street sign overhead. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
“You have a map.” Ramona took a drag from her cigarette. “Figure it out.”
“Haven’t you been here before?”
“It’s been twenty years. How am I supposed to remember?”
Down, up. Usually, these words are unnecessary and you can remove them. For example, “I sat down on the floor.” could be, “I sat on the floor.” and “I stood up.” could be, “I stood.”
Wonder, ponder, think, thought, feel, felt, understand, realize. When you add any of these terms, you’re removing readers from the introspection and adding useless words. For example, “I wondered whether Johnny was the murderer.” could be, “Was Johnny the murderer?” If the narrator questions, “Was Johnny the murderer?” it’s self-explanatory that the narrator is wondering it. This also helps readers feel closer to your narrator, and more involved in the speculation.
Breath, breathe, inhale, exhale. These are far too commonly used by many authors to describe character internals, including me! Instead of deleting, you’ll have to find an alternative way to describe how a character is reacting to whatever has made them breathe quickly, exhale sharply, or “Let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.” Ick! I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus in paperback, not digital, so you can skim through any time.
Shrug, nod, reach. Every author has her own quirks, and over time, you should become familiar with your own. These are a few of mine — in my first drafts, I have characters shrug, nod, and reach for things way too often — and I know a lot of other writers include these, too. Always have second readers, whether you’re writing a novel or blog post. They’ll be able to point out actions that happen too frequently better than you can, because you’ll usually be too close to your own writing to notice.
How to find these words in your writing
If you’re using Word, it’s easy to find these useless words. First, make sure to select a highlight color from the toolbar besides white.
Click Edit > Find > Advanced Find and Replace. Click Replace and the little down arrow.
Enter the word you’re seeking in both the Find what: and Replace with: fields. When your cursor is still in the Replace with: field, click Format > Highlight.
Click Replace All. Repeat this process for every word you want to find in your document. Then you can scroll through your writing and easily spot these words, and decide if you want to delete them. Doing a Find/Replace to delete these words isn’t a good option because there will be some instances when simply removing the word muddles the meaning of your sentence. Sometimes a sentence will need to be reworked.
Image via Cheezburger.