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Friday, August 2, 2013

Evil Little Words in Writing

Now that my novel Gretel and Her Ghost, the sequel to Red and the Wolf, is contracted, I’m beginning the grueling editing process with my wonderful editor, Piper Denna. One of the first tasks she gives me with a newly contracted novel is to eliminate all those pesky little words that weaken fiction by making it wordy or distant. I’ve noticed when doing this that most of these evil little words are four letters or less. Okay, so they’re not really evil. They just feel that way when as many as possible must be combed out of a manuscript.

Cutting back on these words can help improve any type of writing because, in doing so, it removes excess weight from sentences, and you have to use greater creativity and more gripping language to obliterate them. So, as a general guideline, keep an eye out for short words to remove.

Here’s a list of some of the most prolific:

Articles: This includes “a” and “the.”

Being Verbs: I’m sure you’ve heard this one many times. This includes any form of “to be”, past, present, future, perfect tenses, etc. Also, try to remove forms of to do. Usually, these types of verbs are filler and, thus, unnecessary.

Many Prepositions: Words such as “at,” “of,” and “in.”

Conjunctions: Use punctuation when possible, and avoid using too many compound sentences like this one. Conjunctions include words like: and, but, yet, nor, or.

Pronouns: These are any word that takes the place of a noun, such as his, you, or she. There’s nothing wrong with these words per se. However, they can quickly become repetitive, and their use can keep a writer from reaching for a more compelling way to say something.

Adverbs: These usually go over the four letter limit, but they’re a good word type to cull. Otherwise, it’s extremely easy to get overly excessive with these fascinatingly intriguing words. Notice the repetition? “Ly” is a common ending to adverbs and can become rather distracting. Also, notice how all those adverbs a few sentences ago made it tedious to read.

To put it simply, as much as possible, well chosen nouns and verbs should carry most of the weight and do most of the work in narrative sentences. Remember though that, however viciously you go after these words, your sentences must still make sense and contain variety. A sprinkling of these words is essential. Eliminating them primarily tightens sentences and encourages more compelling language.

Good luck and happy writing!


  1. I agree. It's so easy to say...much harder to actually accomplish. Good luck!

  2. Well said, Laura! I tend to look for those pesky words more when I'm wearing my editor's hat as opposed to my writer's hat, LOL. The two are often at odds!