Monday, June 25, 2012

Eliminating Unnecessary Words

The topic of eliminating unnecessary words has been covered before. Many times in many places by many, many astute writers. 


Still, when I get to the down-and-dirty revision stage of a book, I'm surprised all over again at how many overused words I, well, overuse.


I'm working my way though A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die. I searched first for words Donald Maass enjoined us to replace: "felt, gasp, fear, terror." I looked at each character, mostly farmer Cam Flaherty, and made sure that was what she was feeling, and then made sure I showed it in the cleanest, clearest way possible rather than describing the feeling in words. I eliminated a LOT of "felt"s. I didn't find many "terror" instances, and I think all the "gasp"s are gone now.


Then I looked for "stare" in its various noun and verb permutations. Oh, my. Lots of people were staring, sometimes many times within a scene. Revised that one, just getting rid of the verb in quite a few cases. People can just "look" or can fix their eyes on something. Or you can assume if two folks are standing face to face they are mostly likely making eye contact.


Did you know you can eliminate dozens of occurrences of "that?" Yes, you can. The esteemed and insightful Ramona deFelice Long discussed this recently.


Tonight's exercise involves "just." I, and other speakers of English, legitimately use it as a minimizer: "It was probably just an object left long ago." As an intensifier: "The three of them had just made the noon deadline." As a time indicator: "She had just locked the back door." And so on. 


I've found that I use "just" instead of searching for alternatives, for more precise or more colorful ways of saying what I or my characters say or do.


In the minimizer case, how about rewording or removing it? ""It was probably [only] an object left long ago." 
In the intensifier case, how about rewording? "The three of them had barely made the noon deadline."
Same with the time indicator: "She had locked the back door not a minute earlier."


See? Those three examples occurred on one page of my manuscript. I have some hours of revision left on just that word alone. 


I have more to search for, but these are a good start. 


What's your favorite overused word when you revise? What are the kinds of unnecessary words you notice when you're reading? And if you feel like challenging me on this, I might just have to stare you down (after I gasp in terror...).

15 comments:

  1. As I confessed earlier, Edith, I was a that girl for a long time, and actually was a runner-up.

    Another habit, not of mine: characters who take breaths. "I took a breath and plunged into the forest." Really? You weren't planning to plunge into the forest while holding your breath? Breathing is a given. It's only interesting when a character stops doing it.

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  2. Yes, taking breaths! Thanks for stopping by, Ramona.

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  3. The ghost words that haunt my writing are: "some", "just", "I think, and various uses of "needed to". When I get all the way through a mss,I use the "find" feature and go back to remove most of them. I often don't even have to write around them. They're just unnecessary baggage that makes the copy read like it's been watered-down. The breathing thing is different for me. People do hold their breaths, take deep ones and they can't get enough oxygen when they're scared. They pant, too. When I want people to gaze deeply into eyes, I usually describe how beautiful the eyes are -- the colors, the pupil's enlargement, etc. In some cultures women are taught to say "I think" to preface almost everything, just so they won't sound bossy. Some people might like a lot of uncertainty ib a woman, but I don't.

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    1. I'll put "some" and "needed" to on my list, Margaret. Thanks for visiting.

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  4. I had more slumped or sagged shoulders and the radar my cops employed was always in play. Now I'll have to pay attention to all of these other words. Thanks heaps, Edith.

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    1. Shoulders! Another thing to watch for, Peg. Glad you found the post useful.

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  5. "But," "and" and "that" are my bugaboos (almost wrote "worst bugaboos"). Adverbs and adjectives have a place, used judiciously, not something I do in the first draft, LOL. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Michele! I'll add But to my list.

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  6. My editor must have flagged 200 "that"s for deletion. I always hunt for the extra "Just" and find too many.
    There is some program where you can put your MS and it will send back a list of words in order of my frequent use. I think you can flag certain words NOT to be counted, such as "the," and similar words.

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  7. Good post, and I appreciate your putting up another one about the many words we overuse. I'm a guilty love of "just" and have used "simply" occasionally as its replacement. Haven't finished Donald Maas's Writing the Break-through Novel yet (still working on finishing the durn thing first, at least a full draft one). Is that the one you're referring to above?

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    1. Di, we (Sisters in Crime New England) had Donald Maass come to Massachusetts this spring for a dynamite workshop. I haven't worked through his book, but took pages of notes that I'm working through as I revise. Lots of good info. Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. I've worked at eliminating "that" most of the time. I find my characters smile a lot. I'm looking for ways to change it to something that shows thir feelings of pleasure. Maybe I need to write more depressing mysteries.

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    1. That's funny, Gloria! Many are the challenges of our chosen love.

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  9. Edith, I'm sure my academic writing has the same kind of problem, but different words. There's not so much "staring" going on, except in contentious faculty senate meetings. I don't know what tool you use for figuring word frequency, but I've recently been playing with wordle.net to make wordles of my documents to find prominent themes. If you fed your manuscript in, I wonder what you'd find!

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