Cutting Excess Words to Streamline Action and Clarify Your Story

What words can you cut?
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

When the time comes to rewrite, one of the things I focus on is getting rid of any excess. Early on, one of my mentors encouraged me to cut 30% from everything I write. I don’t always manage to do this, but trying to do it means that my writing is lean and specific.

Often I find myself looking for more specific verbs or more exact phrasing to streamline action. For example:

Cut Begin or Start

Whenever my characters begin to walk away or start to do their homework, I know my writing is slowing things down. Why not just have them “walk away” or “do their homework”?

In reality, I think that using start or begin is a clumsy attempt at a transition. Get rid these clutter words and let your character get to it.

Bye-Bye Try

This is one that I just read about in Fiction University. Many writers use over use try. Their characters “try to open the locked door” or “try to look brave.”

Unfortunately, this phrasing leaves the reader unsure. Does the character do whatever or not?

Instead of using this construction, look at why you chose to use it. Maybe your character is making a clumsy attempt, if so change the phrase to indicate it. Clarissa grasped the lock but it didn’t turn. Instead her cold fingers slipped. Instead of using try, paint a more specific scene that will pull your reader in.

Other Words and Phrases that Pad Your Prose

These aren’t the only words and phrases you should avoid. Here are a few more that I sometimes find lurking in my own writing.

  • Standing up or sitting down. Cut the excess words and have your character stand or sit.
  • Speak up or speak out. Again, simplify things by having your character speak.
  • Think to herself. If your character is thinking something, you don’t have to say that she is thinking it to herself. Unless she has telepathy, she isn’t going to be projecting her thoughts to anyone else.

Keep things concise to create clear, concise prose. It will keep your reader reading.