We all want to have a unique voice, but no one wants to be known as a wordy writer. When your writing is wordy, you risk giving your readers the urge to either skip or skim or, even worse, to close the book and pick up another.
Now, I want to preface this article by admitting that I, too, like to use words that some professionals would say to cut when tightening your prose, and when I’m editing for someone else, by no means do I cut out every unneeded wordy word, just the same as I don’t cut every use of passive voice. But being aware of those wordy words or phrases and consciously asking yourself if they are truly needed makes for a better writer. In fact, bonus points for anyone who can spot all the uses of unnecessary words within the narration of this article. (That means not within the “tips” sections, y’all.) 😉
That said, as an editor, I consider myself the author’s teammate, mentor, and cheerleader all rolled into one. My goal is not to change the author’s voice but to help them hone it. I aim to not only assure the author puts out a quality product but also to assist in improving and enhancing their writing and storytelling skills. And one thing I see consistently is prose bogged down with the use of wordy words.
The list of those wordy words can go on and on, so I’ll stick to the most common offenders here. In addition, I’ll note that there are more ways to tighten your prose than what I’ll go over today. Just keep in mind that I’m focusing specifically on the use of those unneeded and unnecessary wordy words for the purpose of this article.
Why? Because wordy sentences or phrases aren’t as clear as they could be, and tightening that prose not only makes for easier reading but it’s also one simple way to ensure your readers continue to turn those pages. And isn’t that the goal, to keep your readers hooked from page one to the end?
Well, tightening your prose is easier than you might think. So, challenge yourself to be a better writer and read on.
Tip 1 – Toss Out Those Unnecessary Ancillary Words or Phrases
An ancillary word is secondary, subordinate, subservient, subsidiary, or, you could say, an accessory. In other words, you don’t need it. And surprisingly, I see the use of these ancillary words or phrases pretty darn often. Why? Well, my theory is that we speak this way every day.
What am I talking about? Let me show you.
“She smiled at him.” — More often than not, there’s no need to establish who the character smiled at.
“He squinted his eyes.” — He couldn’t squint his hand even if he wanted to. Of course, he squinted his eyes.
“She nodded her head.” — I doubt she nodded her foot. Is there really any need to tell us it was her head?
“He shrugged his shoulders.” — I think you get the idea.
Tip 2 – Trash Those Throw-Away Words
Along that same line, a great way to tighten your prose is to dump those commonly used everyday words that I call throw-away words. These words can often (but not always) be excluded without changing the meaning or clarity of your sentence. In fact, dumping these words can often give your sentence more clarity and a smoother read.
Those removable words are Up, Down, In, Out, Inside, Outside, Left, Right, Front, Back (in other words, directional words), On, Off, Had, Was/Were, That, and Very.
I know this sounds odd on the surface, but take a look at these comparative statements, and you’ll see what I mean.
Boris stood up and descended down the stairs. — Boris stood and descended the stairs.
Natasha stepped out through the doorway. — Natasha stepped through the doorway.
Rocky held his left hand up in the air. — Rocky held his hand in the air.
Bullwinkle took a step back away from Natasha. — Bullwinkle took a step away from Natasha.
Rocky and Bullwinkle had gone (also passive) a long time without running into the notorious pair before they had another run-in. — Rocky and Bullwinkle went a long time without running into the notorious pair before another run-in.
Natasha was standing (unnecessary passive voice as well) there with her mouth hanging open while Boris was sitting next to her, clenching his fists. — Natasha stood there with her mouth agape while Boris sat next to her, clenching his fists.
Boris thought that Natasha had captured the pair of animals that he found quite annoying. — Boris thought Natasha had captured the pair of animals he found quite annoying.
Lastly, we rarely, if ever, need the word very. Just ask Mark Twain, who said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.” Need I say more?
Tip 3 – Steer Clear of Using Tautologies by being Redundant (pun intended)
A tautology is when we say the same thing twice using different words or phrases. It’s another way of being redundant or needlessly repeating the same thing, just saying it in a different way by using different words, just as I did here. We often use tautologies or are redundant by using more words than necessary, like he sat down or he stood up. As shown above, we don’t need both sat and down, nor do we need both stood and up.
This is generally considered to be a fault of style. Another example would be They arrived one after the other in succession. Obviously, in succession isn’t needed because one after the other says the same thing.
Another commonly used tautology is He did the same thing regularly every day. Regularly has the same meaning or effect on the statement as every day, every week or whatever. To use all of those words is an unnecessary elaboration, a pointless repetition such as shouting out loud (a redundant statement) that you've spotted a pair of twins, which could possibly (also a redundancy) have me wondering if you're seeing double.
Then there's the often heard saying that someone Died from a fatal gunshot wound. if the gunshot was fatal then, of course, he died, just as being shot by a gun would naturally cause a wound.
We also often hear the appendage of someone reporting the weather conditions when one can simply report the weather. neither do we need to say we joined the two parts together or that something was déjà vu all over again.
As you can see, this goes along with my previous mention of what I call those throw-away words, in that the way we speak daily, the way we phrase things, often creates a tautology or redundancy. (And there’s one more tautology for you.)
Now, I want to mention that because we speak in tautologies or by using redundant statements every day, if I’m editing and see these used in actual dialogue, I won’t suggest removing them. After all, we want our character’s dialogue to sound real or natural, not fake or stiff. (Another redundancy?) 🤔
Below are some more commonly used redundant phrases. You’ll note I’ve crossed out the unneeded redundancy.
absolutely essential absolutely necessary
actual facts advance forward
advance planning advance preview
advance reservations advance warning
add up added bonus
aid and abet all-time record
alternative choice A.M. in the morning
anonymous stranger annual anniversary
armed gunman artificial prosthesis
ascend up (or) ascend up attach together
ATM machine autobiography of his or her own life
bald-headed basic fundamentals
basic necessities best ever
blend together boat marina
bouquet of flowers brief glimpse
brief moment brief summary
burning embers cacophony of sound
cameo appearance cancel out
careful scrutiny cash money
cease and desist circle around
close proximity closed fist
collaborate together combine together
commute back and forth compete with each other
completely annihilate completely destroyed
completely eliminate completely engulfed
completely filled completely surround
component parts confer together
connect together connect up
confused state consensus of opinion
constantly maintained cooperate together
could possibly crisis situation
curative process current incumbent
current trend depreciate in value
descend down desirable benefits
different kinds disappear from sight
drop down during the course of
dwindle down each and every
earlier in time eliminate altogether
emergency situation empty hole
empty out enclosed herein
end result enter in
entirely eliminate equal to one another
eradicate completely estimated at about
evolve over time exact same
exposed opening extradite back
face mask fall down
favorable approval fellow classmates
fellow colleague few in number
filled to capacity final conclusion
final end final outcome
final ultimatum first and foremost
first of all fly through the air
follow behind foreign imports
former graduate former veteran
free gift frozen ice
frozen tundra full to capacity
full satisfaction fuse together
future plans gather together
general public green (red, or whatever) in color
grow in size had done previously
harmful injuries head honcho
heat up hollow tube
hurry up illustrated drawing
indicted on a charge input into
integrate together integrate with each other
interdependent on each other introduced a new
introduced for the first time irregardless
ISBN number join together
joint collaboration kneel down
knowledgeable experts lag behind
later time LCD display
lift up little baby
live studio audience live witness
local residents look ahead to the future
look back in retrospect made out of
major breakthrough major feat
manually by hand may possibly
meet together meet with each other
mental telepathy merge together
might possibly minestrone soup
mix together mutual cooperation
mutually interdependent mutual respect for each other
number-one leader nape of her neck
native habitat natural instinct
never before new innovation
new recruit none at all
now pending off of
old adage old cliche
old custom old proverb
open trench open up
oral conversation originally created
outside in the yard outside of
over exaggerate over with
overused cliché pair of twins
palm of the hand passing fad
past experience past history
past memories past records
penetrate into period of time
personal friend personal opinion
pick and choose PIN number
pizza pie plan ahead
plan in advance Please RSVP
plunge down polar opposites
positive identification postpone until later
pouring down rain preheat
prerecord private industry
present incumbent proceed ahead
proposed plan protest against
pursue after raise up
RAM memory reason is because
reason why recur again
re-elect for another term refer back
reflect back regular routine
repeat again reply back
retreat back revert back
rise up round in shape
safe haven safe sanctuary
same exact sand dune
scrutinize in detail separated apart from each other
serious danger share together
sharp point shiny in appearance
shut down single unit
skipped over slow speed
small size small speck
soft in texture (or) to the touch sole of the foot
spell out in detail spliced together
start off (or) out sudden impulse
sum total surrounded on all sides
tall in height tall in stature
temper tantrum ten (nine, or whatever) in number
three a.m. in the morning three-way love triangle
time period tiny bit
total destruction true facts
truly sincere tuna fish
twelve noon (or) midnight two equal halves
ultimate goal undergraduate student
underground subway unexpected emergency
unexpected surprise unintentional mistake
UPC code usual custom
vacillate back and forth veiled ambush
very unique visible to the eye
wall mural warn in advance
weather conditions whether or not
white snow write down
Tip 4 – Avoid Using Those Passive/Telling Adverbs
An adverb is a word that describes a verb. While most adverbs tell us how the verb is performed, some tell us when, where, how often, and how much a verb is done. Adverbs can also be used with adjectives and even other adverbs. But by definition, the adverb becomes passive or telling. And more often than not it’s used by fiction writers when it doesn’t need to be, causing the statement or sentence to lose its urgency or effect. In other words, it weakens your story.
What I want to talk specifically about today are those “ly” adverbs. There are many, but we’re going to focus on those I see most used. I’ll start with just a few examples of how you can easily convert these statements from passive to active by showing your readers what the character is doing rather than telling them.
“He walked quickly across the street.” — “He hurried across the street.” Or try, “He strode across the street.”
“She spoke loudly over the noisy class.” — “She shouted over the noisy class.”
“‘Stop that,’ he said angrily.” — “‘Stop that,’ he said through gritted teeth.” Or better yet, “‘Stop that,’ he growled.”
“She carefully made her way across the room.” — “She tiptoed across the room.” Or you could say, “She picked her way across the room.”
So, avoid these “ly” adverbs that are often used and rarely needed, like:
So, there you go. Four tips for tightening your prose, improving your writing, and hooking those readers with clearer, more active sentences.
If you'd like to learn a lot more, check out my online writing workshops by flipping over the Writing Workshops page on this website.
May the writing gods be with you as you Write On!