Maybe you’ve heard of James A. Michener. He wrote some books. And he once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”
Rewriting is the better part of writing, and deleting words (or “killing all your little darlings,” as Faulkner put it) is a key part of rewriting. It is a painful process at times, but some words are more easily deleted than others. Here are five that can almost always be safely and productively stricken from your fiction (except, perhaps, in dialogue):
Your readers are experiencing the sequence of actions in the present (even if you’re writing in past tense). So “then” is almost always unnecessary. Replace it with “and.”
“Suddenly” is similar to “then.” Both the character and the reader experience everything “suddenly” (that is, in the moment), so unless you’re describing a drastic change from what was expected, it’s usually best to delete it.
Dialogue tags are sometimes helpful to, well, tag whoever is speaking. But dialogue is best tagged with action (She ended the call. “We have to go.”). And if your characters and their voices are distinguishable from one another, you may be surprised at how many “saids” can be deleted, which will move things along faster and keep the reader turning pages.
Almost everyone overuses the word “that.” Here’s a fun game. Go through your scene or chapter, finding every “that.” If your sentence still makes sense without it, delete it. For example, “God can restore things that the enemy tried to steal” can become “God can restore things the enemy tried to steal.” I’m not saying that you can or should delete every “that,” but that you can and should get rid of many.
No, not the movie. The word “up,” when appended to an action, is often unnecessary. For example, “He stood up and went to the window.” We (your readers) got the “up” part from the word “stood.” You can similarly delete “down” much of the time, but “up” is much more common.
So there you have it. Just five words. But finding and deleting these as often as possible will strengthen your writing.
I concur especially regarding ‘up’ used w/ ‘meet.’ When did that usage fad start?
I don’t know, Elena, but I wish you’d asked, “What’s up with that?” 🙂
Every time I read about little darlings, unnecessary words, my thoughts automatically shift to my WIP and I ask myself, “Did I use those words?” If so, I rewrite sentences and remove them. Funny how non-writers think we can write with no rules or guidelines. My husband gasped, “So, there’s more to writing than just sitting down and writing?” Thanks for the reminder, Bob!
Damon J. Gray
Exactly! I had the same reaction, Loretta.
Thankyou!! I will bookmark this for future reference.
Sandra Schoger Foster
These 5 words are my faves, but alas, I don’t use them.
Love this. Am printing for reference. Will put on my editor’s hat!
I’m rewriting and trying to be meticulous. I know I’ve deleted a few of these already, which makes me feel that I’m doing the right thing, but I wake in a cold sweat most nights knowing a handful of useless words are hiding in a sea of my necessary prose.
I thought the work was golden after my first edit but decided to read it before submitting it. The number of issues I found astonished me. I’m learning though. This is good stuff.
I can do better than that…
I’m rewriting my novel. I’ve deleted some useless words such as these in the process, but I wake in a cold sweat most nights knowing a handful may still be lurking amongst useful prose. I discovered I was prone to mistakes even after my first edit. I’m learning. Great post! Thank you!
Bob, you made today’s assignment HARD.
The man said then, “That I can see
our station up ahead,
makes me find that I am suddenly,
yearning for my own warm bed.”
Then he so suddenly stood up,
that those around him said,
“You wouldn’t look so much a chump
if you’d mind low overhead!”
Then his wife stood up too,
eyes that were suddenly aflame,
“So often that I’ve said to you:
you give us a bad name!”
And then they suddenly realized that
what she said blew up to a marriage spat.
Love it! Great job of that I see and I up I stand to applaud thee…
I’m grateful to thee, friend Claire;
this poem was really a bear.
To work in those five
to Shakespearean jive;
well, your words have me walking on air.
can’t insert imoji
While an emoji’s worthwhile,
your words win by a mile.
On a day of high fever,
they really deliver,
and have given a can’t-be-beat smile!
“My critique buddies believed that my novel had too many unnecessary words,” I said. “Then I climbed up out of that recliner, sat down at my desk, then wrote a note to Bob Hostetler and thanked him for his helpful blog.”
I. Can’t. Even.
But seriously, thanks.
James Scott Bell
But dialogue is best tagged with action
Nix, I say. On occasion, for variety, and with a purpose, an action tag. But action used only for attribution works against the reading experience and the dialogue exchange. It forces the reader to create a picture. Over and over, that wears them down. “Said” does its work virtually unnoticed, which is what you want with good, crisp dialogue.
Please see the definitive work on the subject.
Brennan S. McPherson
Lol, the shameless plug.
Brennan S. McPherson
Bob looked up from his keyboard, then realized someone would give examples that show words struck from a vocabulary can be useful. Even though he said “almost always,” as a qualifier.
… He shrugs. “They’ll still be better off.”
And I agree.
Brennan S. McPherson
Barnacles! I forgot “suddenly.” Oh, well.
Simple but wise advice. I will go through my document looking for these words. Thank you!
Upon further reflection, I thought about the Gospel of Mark. Mark uses “immediately” all the time! (Check it out.) I think “suddenly” and “immediately” are close cousins. Who edited my version of the Bible, huh? 10 times in the first chapter (NASB). I think Jesus was a man of the immediate moment – instantaneous action from a Man of action. Just my opinion.
Debby, that was my first thought, too. I know Mark had to be faithful to Peter’s narration, and Peter was a “sudden” guy in his temperament, so he was probably trapped. But yes!
Thanks for the post. I’ve already edited out most of these taboo words and will go through my manuscript multiple times to kill the little darlings.
I’ve heard conflicting advice on the use of “said” in dialogue. This, of course, mentioned in the context of using it in place of other dialogue attributes, like: “She called” or “he spouted”. In these instances, the use of said is presumed less jarring.
To be honest, I lean toward the “no said” camp. Action beats work better. But there are times when I’ve made an exception.
What are your thoughts in this area?
Bob, thanks for more teaching fodder. I will jot these in my trusty notebook. Notice I didn’t say “down”.
Sharon K Connell
Yes, as you said, these words can usually be dropped from our writing. But if the use of the offending word will make the writing more natural and easy to read or understand what the writer is trying to get across, I say use it. Reread the sentence with and without the word, and then decide which is better. The words are in the dictionary. As long as you don’t overuse them and only use them when you really need them, I see no reason for striking them from your writing vocabulary.
For the most part, I think we’ve gone overboard in what we cannot write. When I do my initial editing, before I send my work to the critiquer and again before sending the ms to the editor, I send it through an editing program, which will call my attention to those words. I try the sentences with and without the word. Then (big grin), I decide for myself to use or discard it.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Thanks for the info, Bob. Guilty as charged (or should I just say “guilty,” since we can assume I was charged of something! 🙂
Ho there hey there… *(The Princess Bride quote somewhere in the script)
I have a list of 34 words to strike from writing. Thirty-four. I made certain every 34 words were struck (those which didn’t fit). Ran the puppy of the MS through ProWriting Aid. Only to find more.
Great idea, Claire, methought. Sentences were struck short and choppy. REWRITE. Pfft.
Think I will cut down to your 5, why you ask? Because thou art smarter than my small self and my PWA. pfft.
Once again, *never forget to save yer money to pay a professional editor.
Great advice for 11 months out of the year. Then comes November, the month that is National Novel Writing Month. Then, since we are counting up our word so that we can then reach 50,j000, we use all the extra and unnecessary words that we can.
Bob, my writing is a memoir of my journey with Christ.Maybe taking me out of the writing and making the stories second or third person. Maybe a novella. Open to anything you would suggest. Also, a note of thanks to you for your funny posts. You have the gift of making me laugh.
I do have a word of caveat… not all words should be struck that strike, stuck on the list…
We all know about smashing repetition. RIGHT? okay, so I have a woman, blinded by a strike to her head. She wonders… how can I live without sight? When she emerges from the hospital and sees the waterfalls, she thinks ‘eyesight is wonderful, fantastic and not to be repetitive, awesome.’ Or some such I haven’t read that in a while…
But all of those words on your list (and my long one, most can be squashed.
Nodded and sighed. Left to themselves, my characters, as I believe I’ve said before, tend to become disappointed bobbleheads. I try to limit the sighing and nodding to once every 10-20 pages, but they still end up doing those things too often!
I hear that! I find my ‘favorite lazy’ words and have made a list. I go through them and reword. There are several words that I will only use once in the entire MS because as a reader, my eye goes straight to a redundancy even if it happens just once. And I try to only give one character a specific action or phrase, i.e. the MC says hush while the love interest says shut up. Only one raises a shoulder or has a half-smile (or lopsided grin, or signature smile) while the other is the only one to cover her mouth (or cough laughter into her mouth etc).
English sucks when editing for punctuation. But it has many great ways to command the reader into commitment.
and… hopefully an agent.
Those words just sneak into my stories sometimes. “That” is the worst one. But one other word I often have to delete in later drafts is “Back.” For some reason, I seem to really like that word. As I’m editing, I’ll be on the look out for your outlawed five as well!
Thanks. Your article was very helpful. I’m always wondering whether to keep or delete the word “that” from my writing. You answered my question.
I guess I am a rewriter, too. Whenever someone asks me to edit something, I seem to end up rewriting it. It’s not always appreciated.
I hope this question isn’t missed in all this witty and wise humor. I’m trying to get one part solidified in my brain. I remember not too long ago some sage and wise authors making the point that you can’t use “and,” because it implied impossible simultaneous actions. (This was along the same “era” of the Flying Body Parts Movement (oh yes, pun most definitely intended).
So as a young writer I stopped moving eyes, arms, legs, feet, ears, etc. without the body attached. Okay. The solution to the “and” issue?
THEN! Use “then.”
I’m so confused. I thought I had this down, then Bob blew up my world!
Or should it be “and Bob blew up my world?” What do I believe now?!?
Okay, all fun aside, I love this post. Helps me see how certain things can be trends that are still valuable to learn from and more importantly, how fun it can be to toss out a pain in the you know what writing rule. Thank you!
Brennan S. McPherson
Beyond rules are… art. Art isn’t about breaking rules. But knowing when to use them best.
If I keep reading your blog posts, I’m never going to get my proposal sent to you! (Kidding.) Thank you for this post and the one from a few weeks ago when you sent me back to the editing chair to strike my beloved passive verbs from my manuscript. My writing is better for your direction. Thank you.
I was going to query Bob Hostetler, but his description of his needs includes a statement THAT you deal with speculative fiction.
Does speculative fiction mean you take paranormal romances?
I write Christian YA novels.
Fifteen novels are on Amazon, I have more than three thousand followers on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.
Are you able to explain why Christian publisher who believe in an afterlife, obviously, cannot fathom ghost-whisperers?
Rohn Federbush, firstname.lastname@example.org
I have never understood why someone tells you to “listen up”. ‘Up’ doesn’t mean anything in this context, but nobody ever says simply, “listen.”
“That” is my nemesis. Must be something “that” I picked “up” as a child.