Editing is a skill that is probably the most difficult to learn. It’s something that feels as if it should be instinctive but isn’t. What I’d like to focus on today is getting rid of those small, unnecessary words which gum up writing. The kind of words or phrases we don’t really notice at first but act as weeds in our prose.
Now what do I mean by unnecessary or garbage words? What I’m referring to are words such as just, that, like, very, so, etc. Words which are overused that when removed no one misses them as it doesn’t change what’s actually being said. It can also include having too many dialogue tags within a scene where only two people are talking. It can also be repetitive phrases such as stood up, two-wheeled bicycle, shrugged her shoulder, etc.
To illustrate what I’m talking about here’s a PDF of articles I’ve found speaking to the matter. I apologize for the poor quality as I scanned this for myself never intending to share it publicly. WordsToCutOrReplace001
There are several benefits to cutting out superfluous words. Firstly, it helps tighten the prose and makes it flow better. Secondly, it’s a great starting point for getting your word count down. Thirdly, cutting out unnecessary words frees up space to allow for more of the characters and story to come out.
The 10% Solution by Ken Rand and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King are two books which have helped me enormously in this area. In The 10% Solution, Rand provides a list of some of the most common things writers have in drafts that can be cut or modified in order to trim word count. He encourages writers to add to this list of tendencies because we each have certain words, phrases, and motions we latch onto. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers the authors focus on specific areas, dialogue stronger, the proportion of exposition to action, making prose sound more sophisticated without being pretentious to name a few, to make a story as effective as possible from a technical standpoint. To help you understand and practice what you’ve just read they include exercises.
My suggestion is to go ahead and make yourself a list of words and phrases you overuse. If you’re not sure, think back to feedback received on a story. Or use the example Rand gives in The 10% Solution and add to it as you become more aware. Refer to it as you edit and maybe you’ll even discover your drafts getting stronger.
Below is an example of the original draft of a paragraph from a current work-in-progress:
I stood there, naked and cold in the chamber waiting for the doors to close. I saw Brett press the green button and the doors wrapped themselves around me and locked. I stared straight ahead. The doors were frosted glass casting a soft, dreamlike halo over everything in the room. I kept my gaze focused going over and over the plan as a way to steady my nerves. Whenever my thoughts strayed from the plan, like thinking about the permanent consequences that can happen should something go wrong with the Face Former, I snapped my focus back onto the memory of seeing my deformed body for the first time.
Below is what the cleaned up version looks like:
I stood there, naked and cold in the chamber as the frosted glass doors wrapped around me and locked. I stared straight ahead, a soft, dreamlike halo over everything in the room. My gaze was focused while I went over and over the plan as a way to steady my nerves. Whenever those thoughts strayed, like the permanent consequences should something go wrong, I snapped my focus back onto the memory of seeing my deformed body for the first time.
While nowhere near what I would consider finished, it’s an improvement. As you can hopefully see I was able to get rid of repetitious phrases and tightened it up. The point is when I go back over this passage in the future I’ve given myself room to add more concrete details and to think more deeply about the character.
Once you get into the habit of weeding your work of these little garbage words and phrases, you can see the beauty of your writing come out. Think of your rough draft as your garden at the beginning of spring. There are a lot of weeds and trimming to be done, more than at any other time. It’s overwhelming but in order for the plants to get water to thrive it must happen. The same is true for your story. But as we all know that initial weeding doesn’t mean we’re done. It’s something we have to stay on top of throughout the year. And our writing demands weeding at every stage to help our garden grow beautiful.