One mark of a good writer is the ability to communicate more with less. Editors like lean prose that’s effective and clear without wasting words. Often, our writing becomes cluttered without us realizing it. Words that seem innocent enough can actually detract from what you’re trying to say and add unneeded “fluff.” So how can you create tight, lean prose? Here are some words to cut from your writing!
NOTE: While these words can often clutter your writing, that’s not always the case. Exceptions can always be made, and it’s up to you to use your judgement to decide when a word can stay and when it needs to go.
“Of the” is almost always unnecessary and can be simplified.
The owner of the restaurant.
The restaurant owner.
The wheels of the skateboard.
The skateboard’s wheels.
One of the nails came loose.
A nail came loose.
This one seems innocent enough, but again it can almost always be cut without any damage. If you have “that” in a sentence remove it, and if what’s left still makes sense then it’s unnecessary.
He said that he was coming.
He said he was coming.
Our teacher promised that there wouldn’t be any homework.
Our teacher promised there wouldn’t be any homework.
Most adverbs are either redundant or superfluous. For example:
“I have to go,” she whispered quietly.
Whispering implies being quiet, so “quietly” is redundant and can be cut.
He moved quickly across the lawn.
If we choose a strong verb the adverb becomes unnecessary and the writing becomes tighter and punchier:
He dashed across the lawn.
Words like almost, slightly, somewhat, etc. aim to de-emphasize. This can weaken your writing. Observe:
The weather was somewhat hot.
The weather was balmy.
He backed up slightly.
He took a step back.
Her hair was almost soaked.
Her hair was wet.
Be as clear and direct as possible! Don’t waver in-between.
These words aim to emphasize, but if we choose our words carefully to begin with, they become unnecessary.
He ran really fast across the parking lot.
He bolted across the parking lot.
They had a very good time.
They had an excellent time.
The mouse was quite large.
The mouse was massive.
While not all adjectives are bad, you can usually eliminate or combine them without losing meaning. Watch out for piling on too many adjectives, and try to choose strong nouns that could replace them.
The small, fluffy, white kitten
The white kitten (small and fluffy is implied with kittens)
The large spotted dog
Vague words like things, stuff, something, etc. should be avoided whenever possible because they do little to help the reader. Be specific to communicate clearly and give the reader a vivid picture!
She knew they needed to talk about things.
She knew they needed to talk about Max cheating with Em.
The table was littered with random art stuff.
The table was littered with pens, charcoal, paper wads, and brushes whose bristles were gummy with dried paint.
8. Most dialogue tags
Sometimes we need dialogue tags (said, shouted, whispered, etc.) to let us know who’s speaking. But often we can use character actions to communicate the same information in place of dialogue tags, or drop both altogether. For example:
Derek shoved his sweet potatoes around his plate. “I’m not hungry.”
His mother sighed. “Stop being picky.”
“I’m not picky. Potatoes shouldn’t be orange.”
“It’s good for you.”
“I don’t trust orange food.” He shoved his plate away.
There wasn’t a single dialogue tag in that conversation but you probably didn’t have any trouble following who was saying what. When you do find yourself in need of a dialogue tag, it’s usually best to use said over words like intoned, stated, etc.
Just like with dialogue tags, we can communicate a character’s thoughts without words like realized, wondered, pondered, etc. I have a more detailed article explaining how to communicate a character’s thoughts which you can read here.
This is a sneaky clutter word that can often be cut from your writing without changing its meaning.
Sara called a cab and then grabbed her coat.
Sara called a cab and grabbed her coat.
Do you struggle with any of these clutter words? Are there any other words you avoid? Let me know in the comments below!