Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Word Weeding

It's Wordy Wednesday...

...but today I'll talk about the opposite of being wordy. In particular: words to weed out before you submit your manuscript.

Start, begin, turn, look, could, and feel are the biggest culprits. As an editor reading submissions, the first thing I do is search for how these words are used. If the counter comes up in the hundreds for more than one, I return the manuscript, even if the story is good.

Here's a basic check-list to help you clear your manuscript of these pests:

1) Do your characters start do to things? Do they began to walk? Begin to speak?

Use the "find" feature in your word processor and go through your manuscript, looking for all forms of "start" and "begin" ("began", "begun").

(Note: Don't use "find & replace", because you will have to think about how to tighten most sentences where the rogue words occur.)

Here are some examples to help you:

Joe started to walk down the street.
Joe walked down the street.

Jane began to ponder her predicament.
Jane pondered her predicament.

2) Are people turning and looking and seeing? Do you have them turning to the door? Are they looking at each other when they talk? Does Bob see the path ahead of him?

Again, use the "find" feature for all three words - "turn", "look", "see" (and "saw"). Here's more examples:

He turned to the door, seeing it was partly ajar.
The door was ajar.

Hansel turned to Rachel and looked at her shimmering red dress.
Rachel's red dress shimmered.

She saw the path before her, then turned to look at Chris as she spoke. "Are you going to get over it? I told you I'm sorry."
"I need time. Weren't you listening?" Chris said.
The path stretched ahead. Chris kept pace with her, brooding. "Are you going to get over it? I told you I'm sorry."
"I need time. Weren't you listening?"

Notice in the last example how cutting those words makes the story do its own telling? Good storytelling hides a lot between the lines, so you can say more with less.

3) Check if you have a case of the "coulds". Do you find that Chuck could feel his panic rising? Or that Haley could smell the fresh rain?

Go through your manuscript, searching "could" and "feel" (don't forget "felt" and could's cousins, "should", and "might").

Alex could hear the alarm from across the room.
The alarm blared.

He might have felt fear, but he steeled himself anyway.
He steeled himself, ignoring fear.

He felt the snake slither across his leg.
The snake slithered across his leg.

Sanford could have sworn he was supposed to be at the office by eight, but he must have been wrong.
Sanford arrived at the office by eight. It was empty. He checked his calendar.

4) If you've ticked off this checklist, then you're on track. But the list goes on: said, asked, just, very, and realize, to name a few.

There are many great books on writing craft. I would personally recommend Strunk and White's, The Elements of Style and Rayne Hall's, The Word Loss Diet, as short, easy-to-follow drills that will help you make your submission shine.

Graeme Brown
Junior editor
Twitter: @GraemeBrownWpg


  1. These are awesome tips for tightening a story and making it more active. Just reading the examples alone shows how much more we, as readers, are pulled into the story if the phrasing is right. "He steeled himself, ignoring fear." You've got my attention with a sentence like that.

  2. Words to live and die by! haha. Hard to realize we have so many weeds in our word garden. Great topic Graeme!

  3. And don't you love 'that'. However, the two words I'm always stumbling over are gazed and glanced. Not Look, but the above two.
    Anyone come up with a way to gaze, without saying gaze, or glance, without the quick perusal? (they didn't peruse in the 13th century!) That's a modern word. See what I mean about 'that'!

  4. That's a good one, Allison! When you get rid of those big, bad weeds, then you turn to all the others and realize there's still lots to pluck - like glance.

    Here's an example:

    He gazed in at the newcomers. Every one of them wore a hood, and one had a sword strapped to her hip.
    The newcomers wore hoods. One of them, a woman, was armed with a sword.

    "Gazed" is often used to tell the reader that a character looked at or saw something. You can usually rewrite a sentence to describe what your character sees directly, since you have established your character's PoV.

    Hope this helps.