Thursday, March 24, 2011

Words You Think You Need But Don't

Sometimes our writing feels like a heavy load.
Writers can usually tell when they get wordy, but aren’t necessarily sure what can get cut. Here are some things you can get rid of:

I saw, I felt, I knew

For some reason, it’s not enough just to say something happened; we have to point out that the writer perceived what happened. For example, you might say: Jack felt a hand grab his shoulder.

This is unnecessary because we know he felt it. No one gets grabbed on the shoulder without feeling it. You also don’t have to say, “I looked across the room and saw a man glaring at me.” If your character says, “A man across the room glared at me,” we know he saw it.


In my book, there are a lot of mobs and crowds, and I found myself saying things like “all the people,” or “the whole of Rome.” I can just as easily say “the people” or “Rome.” It’s not like I would say, “The people screamed in despair, except for a handful who weren’t all that worried.” Instead of saying “her entire body ached,” I should say, “her body ached.” You get the picture.


If you use adverbs, instead of saying “I said,” you say, “I said bitterly,” or “I said excitedly.” I’m a recovering adverb addict myself. At first, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t use them. If I don’t say the way my character spoke was bitter, how will the reader know?

It didn’t click in my head until I read Jennifer Hubbarb’s fantastic post, Streamlining. She pointed out that we often use adverbs when we can't come up with a strong verb. It becomes a crutch.

Instead of saying, “She walked quietly” and “She went sneakily,” you can say “She tiptoed” and “She crept.” Doesn’t that sound better?

Oftentimes we don’t need an adverb because there’s only one way to do the action. Another example Jenn used was “She put her ear flat against the door.” How else would you put your ear against a door? Unevenly? Or instead of saying, “She squeezed her hands tightly into fists,” you can just say she squeezed them because no one makes a loose fist.

When you use too many adverbs, you’re telling, not showing. If my character said something bitterly, I could have written, “His lip curved in a bitter sneer.” Much more interesting.

"Seemed to, looked like"

Don't say things like, "He seemed to be staring at me." He either was or he wasn't. You should only say "seemed" when your character finds out she was wrong ("He seemed to be staring at me, but then I realized he was staring at someone behind me.")


I don’t know why we use “that” when we don’t have to. It just sounds good in our heads. Does anyone know the rule for this? I’ve looked in grammar books and haven’t found anything.

I took out a few unnecessary thats in this article. Originally, I wrote, “If I don’t say that the way my character was bitter…” I changed it to “If I don’t say my character was bitter…” It means the same thing. It’s just less wordy.


Adjectives are great tools, but like adverbs, we can use them as a crutch when we’re too lazy to describe things. I might be tempted to write “the necklace was beautiful” when I could have said, “the gold in the necklace clasped deep green emeralds that shone in the sun.” After a sentence like that, I don’t need to tell you it’s a beautiful necklace.

He began, then he started

Since every action has a beginning, middle, and end, we can assume if a character wasn’t doing something before but is now, he probably started doing it at some point. I shouldn’t say, “She started to cry.” I only need to say “she cried.”

In the same way, we don't need to say the word "then." Example: "She cried, and then he ran out of the room." We write actions in the order they happened. We already know he ran out of the room after she started crying.

Was + ing

I can't for the life of me figure out why we do this, but instead of saying "he ran," we like to say, "he was running." It’s called past continuous. What's worse is when we say "he had been running," past perfect progressive. Even the terms for these verbs are wordy. Keep your verbs simple!

We think this takes us more into the action, but a reader doesn't distinguish one verb from another. He just sees a form of "run," and whether the character ran or had run or was running or had been running doesn't change the action.

We also do this because we feel we have to say at what point in time something happened. We might want to write, "He was running and then she started running. She caught up to him because he had been running for a long time and was tired." We could say, "He ran and she rushed after him. His was already tired, so she caught up to him easily."

There are many other things I could include in this post, but it’s getting kind of long, so I’m going to stop there.


  1. Wow. Great post. I feel scolded and encouraged. :) A nice combination.

    Marie at the Cheetah

  2. I'm guilty of one or two (or five!) of those

  3. Oh, this is such a good post! I think I might bookmark it for later reference. :D

  4. Very good! Love the picture too. Puts it into perspective.

    I hate the "was's" they kill me. Oh, and "thats", don't get me start on the that's.

    Every time I go back through the first draft of my manuscript, I'm appalled. What the heck? I wish I could simply write it right the first time--I'm working on it though.

    Great post. Thanks for putting it together :)


  5. The piece of adverbs made me laugh. I don't know if it was supposed to, but it did.

  6. Finally! A blog post that explains the problems of adverb use. Adverbs are not bad; they can just be weak substitutes for stronger verbs.
    A professional writer told me to only use adjectives that are necessary for an object's description.
    You might emphasize this is for narrative. A writer might have a character who habitually says "Really," or someone who is overwhelmed by an experience and can just say, "Beautiful." Although too much of that kind of dialog can be wearing.


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