Life in Writing
If you guys are anything like me when you write then your first drafts are terrible. Not because the story is bad but because the words on the page just don’t flow right. It feels clunky and cliché and the truth is that it feels that way because it is that way. But don’t despair over your hot mess of a first draft, this is the part where editing comes in. Your first job in editing your writing is to cut out all of the clunky and unnecessary words so that your real story can shine through. When undertaking this endeavor, it might be hard to tell which words are important and which words are dragging your story down, so here are 4 of the most common words in bad writing so you can spot them and take them out.
Is + -ing verb
This one is so bad, and so common that I’ve actually written an entire post about it, but the basic points are worth repeating here. Any time you have a sentence that has a form of the word “is” (Am, Was, Were, etc.) followed by a verb that ends in “ing” you should try to cut it out of your writing. This won’t be possible in every instance, but in most it is. For example, if your story has a sentence like, “Suzy was running to catch the bus.” Shorten it down to say, “Suzy ran to catch the bus.” It’s a small change, but trust me, it goes a long way in making your writing more readable.
This is a tricky word to remove as it is quite often necessary to make your sentence work. If that’s consistently true of our writing, you may want to consider restructuring your sentences to make this word unnecessary. If you’re like most writers and you just put the word “then” into your writing because that’s how you talk, you can remove it pretty easily. For example, if you have an if/then statement in your writing, try cutting out the word “then” and see how it reads. “If you like tacos, then you probably like burritos too.” Makes just as much sense written as, “If you like tacos, you probably like burritos too.” It seems like a small change, but with how often the word “then” comes up in our everyday language it can get over-used in our writing pretty fast. Give your readers a break and cut a few of the “thens” from your story.
This one is near and dear to me since I have a huge tendency to over-use it in my own writing. If your story has a lot of action in it then this one will be big for you too, but even less action-packed stories tend to have problems with these words. Here’s an example:
“Isn’t Autumn just beautiful?” Jake said as he began raking his leaves.
“Isn’t Autumn just beautiful?” Jake said as he raked his leaves.
The meaning isn’t significantly changed by removing the word “began,” but it does make it just slightly more readable. Now imagine that you have a sentence like that coming up 6 times during your action sequence. Can you see how that might interrupt the flow a little bit?
This word is the scourge of functional writing. Any time an explanation is being offered, which is quite often in storytelling, this word creeps in without ever needing to be there. Here’s an example paragraph to illustrate a few instances where “that” is commonly overused.
Sarah couldn’t believe that this was happening. The switch that connected the heating element in her toaster had broken off, and that made it so that she couldn’t have the toast that she loved. She couldn’t help but thinking that today would be awful now.
This paragraph is a bit overloaded, but it gets the point across. Here’s the same paragraph without using the word “that.”
Sarah couldn’t believe this was happening. The switch connecting the heating element in her toaster had broken off, and now she couldn’t have the toast she loved. She couldn’t help thinking today would be awful now.
Do you see how much easier the second paragraph was to read? Just by removing the word “that” and reforming the sentences accordingly, we removed about a 5th of the paragraph without changing the meaning at all, and consequently made it much more interesting to read and way easier to understand.
Keep these 4 words in mind as you start the editing process and you’ll see your writing get clearer and clearer as you go. If you’re looking for a few other writing tips, check out a few of my other posts:
3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Publishing My First Book
Writing With Flow
Daniel M. Quilter is the author of A Soul Divided. On this blog he'll interview other authors, review books, share nerd wisdom from popular sci-fi and fantasy, and occasionally share his insights on writing. See a list of his works or see what he's working on.
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