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DON’T BE A WORDY WRITER – FOUR WAYS TO TIGHTEN YOUR PROSE WITHOUT DESTROYING YOUR VOICE

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. Remember, you only need one.


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 [time] A.M. in the morning

anonymous stranger annual anniversary

armed gunman artificial prosthesis

ascend up (or) decend down attach together

ATM machine bald-headed

autobiography of his/her own life 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 (two, or any #) 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:


accidentally accusingly

adamantly angrily

anxiously argumentatively

automatically badly

beautifully boldly

bravely breathlessly

carefully certainly

correctly dangerously

dutifully eagerly

effortlessly evenly

eventually finally

foolishly frequently

generally generously

gladly gracefully

greatly happily

heartily highly

horrifyingly hungrily

ironically loudly

lovely lowly

massively motionlessly

mournfully necessarily

normally painstakingly

partially perfectly

practically pragmatically

promptly proudly

quickly quietly

roughly sadly

separately sharply

shortly slowly

smoothly softly

spitefully suddenly

thankfully wrongly



So, there you go—four tips for tightening your prose, improving your writing, and hooking readers with clearer, more active sentences.


If you'd like to learn more, check out my online writing workshops on the Writing Workshops page on this website.


May the writing gods be with you as you Write On!



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