This blog post is partly inspired by having recently re-edited my own 2018 novel. Four years of distance have allowed me to read it with fresh eyes and far more objectivity, and this time round I’m finding myself noticing little things that flew under the radar of four-years-ago me, notably a heck of a lot of redundant words, or what I like to call junk words: small words or phrases that are just ‘there’, taking up valuable space on the page and doing nothing more useful than padding out your word count.
I thought I had done a pretty good job of removing these junk words, but it just goes to show how proximity can prevent us from seeing the faults in our own writing, and the importance of having another pair of eyes on our work.
A lot of the junk words I’ve been finding in my novel overlap with what I see in many of the books I edit. The following list is one I’ve compiled of some of the worst offenders.
Junk Words to Cut From Your Writing
That. This is a big one. It can sneak into sentences everywhere if you let it, but if meaning is clear without it, scrap it. “I thought that I had seen her somewhere before,” can become, “I thought I had seen her somewhere before.”
Very/really. These modifiers are often a good indication that the following adjective is weak. “When my father caught me smoking behind the shed, he was very angry,” could become, “When my father caught me smoking behind the shed, he was livid.”
Suddenly/just then. Often used to increase suspense, but actually does the opposite. Cut it!
Then/and then. Can come across as amateurish and child-like if you aren’t careful. “Roger dashed across the road, then waved to Jenny. Then Jenny looked away, then turned to her friend, and then said, ‘Pretend you didn’t see him.’” Vs. “Roger dashed across the road, waving to Jenny. Jenny looked away, turned to her friend, and said, ‘Pretend you didn’t see him.’”
Began to/started to. This is one I see quite often in manuscripts I edit, but it’s almost always unnecessary. The characters are either doing an action or they aren’t. “He started to chop the onions," can become, “He chopped the onions.”
All/all of the. Almost always unneeded. “All of the children filed into the playground,” can be, “The children filed into the playground.”
Totally/completely. Used for emphasis where a stronger verb would work better. “The sweet shop was totally full of goodies.” Vs. “The sweet shop was crammed with goodies.”
Nodded her head. Is there any other part of the body you can nod? Just “nodded” will do.
Up/down. “He sat down on the comfy-looking sofa,” can easily be cut to “He sat on the comfy-looking sofa.” “I stood up and crossed the classroom,” could be, “I stood and crossed the classroom.”
Said. Not every line of dialogue needs an attribution. If you can get away with not using a dialogue tag, do it.
Like all writing “rules”, this isn’t to say that you should avoid these words 100% of the time. You may want to include them in dialogue, for instance, for reasons of voice or authenticity. But if you can get out of the habit of using these words unthinkingly, your writing will be much stronger for it.
Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor