Edit Yourself: A Checklist of Words to Add and Delete From Your Writing

A Checklist of Words to Add and Delete From Your Writing
Written by Chels Knorr

The secret to making your writing sing is word economy. That’s the article. The end.

Economical does not mean shorter. William Struck in The Elements of Style so eloquently states: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So simple, and yet examining your writing to ensure every word does major lifting takes a tremendous amount of work and willpower. It takes the willingness to trim, tune, and tighten until the shape of the narrative is precise.

In writing practice, you hammer in good habits, but you also reinforce bad habits too.

To break bad writing habits and adopt good ones, use this checklist to examine your drafts and cut fat. Once you have experience identifying these common culprits to clunky writing on current full-length drafts, implement the techniques as you write new pieces.

The secret to making your writing sing is word economy. That’s the tweet. The end. #ContentMarketing #EliminateWordiness Click To Tweet

delete redundant phrases

1. Delete redundant phrases.

You never need to say two words consecutively with the same meaning, examine your writing for accidental redundancy. For example: “Close proximity.” Proximity means close, It’s either close or not close. Here are some other common repetitive phrases:

  • Basic necessities
  • Unexpected surprise
  • Personal opinion
  • Added bonus
  • Free gift
  • End result
  • New innovation
  • Regular routine
  • Each and every
  • Sum total
  • Past history
  • Blatantly obvious
  • Period of time
  • Advance warning
  • Sudden impulse
  • Absolutely certain

Smart Blogger offers almost 300 on its list.

2. Trade adverbs for punchier verbs.

Adverbs often act as a crutch, propping up limping verbs. Adverbs aren’t all bad, of course, but the more you rely on them, the weaker your verbs become. Consider the examples, taken from this ClearVoice article on adverb use. The sentence “She wholeheartedly believed in hope” is made stronger by deleting the adverb and replacing the weak verb with a stronger, visceral verb: “She clung to hope.” One strong verb for two weak ones (adverb + weak verb) is a great exchange and it gives you and the reader more bang for the buck.

Adverbs can also cause overwriting, telling the reader how to feel or act. Take the sentence “She smiled fearlessly,” for example. Rather than telling the reader how the woman smiled, let the reader decide based on the scene or situation. Show what a fearless smile looks like instead of simply stating it.

3. Evaluate your gerund use.

Gerunds — verbs ending in -ing” — are weaker, especially when used en masse, than their simple present or past tense counterparts. Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer offers two explanations as to why. He says gerunds add a syllable to the word, dampening its impact. Also, the addition of -ing to several verbs in a paragraph makes them all resemble each other, creating a monotony of sounds.

Gerunds often make their way into titles and many fall flat as a pancake. Make titles carry their weight by nixing the -ings altogether.

Not all -ing verbs have cooties, especially in moderation. If you find you have several gerunds in your piece, cut them with the same spirit you do for adverbs. Use, don’t overuse. Replacing some will make the piece cleaner and more direct.

Remove filler words

4. Eliminate filler words and unnecessary qualifiers.

Filler words are easy to identify in speech: “Um,” “Ah,” and “Like” are a few that are easy to pick out in an everyday conversation. But imagine a speech where the speaker’s ideas flow one to the other and he never fills the space with unnecessary noise.

Even the most elegant writer uses filler words and unnecessary qualifiers (at least in the first few drafts). Deleting these common fillers can refine the delivery of your writing.

  • That
  • So
  • In order to
  • When all is said and done
  • Basically
  • Just
  • Very
  • Really
  • Highly
  • Needless to say
  • For what it’s worth
  • In my humble opinion
  • For all intents and purposes
  • A bit
  • Sort of
  • Kind of
  • In a sense
  • Tend to
  • Seemed to
  • Must have
  • Could have
”For what it’s worth, in my humble opinion, I tend to use a lot of filler words, needless to say.” Click to find out what you can cut from your articles to make them clearer and more concise. Click To Tweet

5. Tighten common conversational phrases.

In an effort to make our writing sound conversational, writers sometimes pick up the excess words we use unintentionally when speaking. In written copy, we have to learn to say it in fewer words. Here are some examples and how to shorten them for the page:

  • As to whether = whether
  • Due to the fact that = because
  • For the purpose of = to/for
  • In spite of the fact that = despite/although
  • In the event of = if
  • In the process of = when/while
  • Has the ability to = can
  • With regard to = regarding
  • With the possible exception of = except

6. Delete the preface.

The dreaded author’s preface is often seen in conversational writing, but writers have to be aware of important details, and trust readers to recognize those details as well. Avoid prefacing statements with “It’s interesting to note” — shouldn’t the reader, not you, get to decide if it’s interesting?

7. Kill your darlings.

Every author has written something they think is too beautiful or too worthy to delete, but that they couldn’t get right. We force the lines into places they just don’t belong. Try copying them over to another document and save them for another time. The term “kill your darlings” is attributed to several different writers and if you want to learn more about it, check out this article The Writing Practice.

highlight to-be verbs

8. Highlight all your to-be verbs.

It seems crazy to use a printer these days, with everything online and the planet about to implode, but sometimes I need to print out articles I’m struggling with. I take the pages, sit down with a highlighter and mark every to-be verb in the piece. To refresh, to-be verbs include:

  • Is
  • Are
  • Am
  • Was
  • Were
  • Be
  • Been
  • Being

These suckers add up fast. This exercise will show you, in neon ink, just how often and how heavily you depend on these boring verbs and where you need to plug in better, brighter ones. Once you’ve replaced your verbs, read over your piece again. You’ll see with just this one change, your piece is tighter and stronger.

We have thousands of verbs in the English language and yet we resort to just eight boring ones most often. Spice it up! Click To Tweet

9. Order words for emphasis.

Put your strongest content at the beginning and end. Teachers and journalists sometimes refer to this as a 2-3-1 rule — put the second strongest images and words at the beginning, the boring bits in the middle, and the best details at the end. A great example of this comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” The most important part of this short sentence is dead. The second most important is the Queen and Shakespeare just hides the title in the middle. This packs a punch at the end and leaves the reader wanting to know what’s next.

Practice this same technique within paragraphs and even for full articles. Put the best stuff at the end for emphasis, but don’t let the beginning suffer for it. A long sentence full of commas and tangents, followed by a short two- or three-word sentence is like power-loading a spring and a great way to end an important paragraph.

10. Don’t commit thesaurus crimes.

Every time I see the word “chortled” I think someone must have needed another word for laughed and looked it up in the thesaurus. Consult a thesaurus but don’t dive too deep. It should jog your memory about words you already know. Dear Megan talks about thesaurus crimes in this oldie but goodie ClearVoice blog post. The point of a thesaurus is not to find a longer, more sophisticated word; it’s to find a better word.

The point of a thesaurus is not to find a longer, more sophisticated word; it’s to find a better word. Use the reference wisely. Click To Tweet

11. Employ the 10% rule.

William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well” says: “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there… Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that doesn’t serve any purpose.”

Zinnser proposes you can cut 50 percent of a draft and say the same thing. But if cutting 50 percent of a draft makes you want to hyperventilate, as it does me, aim for 10 percent. I find I can almost always cut two words out of from a 20-word sentence and not miss a thing. See?

Clear and concise doesn’t mean shorter. It means efficient and economical. Be intentional about your word choices, save the best for last, and whittle away 10 percent. Force your verbs to do the heavy lifting and cut the clutter. Make every word tell.

About the author

Chels Knorr

Chels Knorr lives in Phoenix, Arizona. To make money, she edits. To spend money, she travels. Thanks to SPF 50, she spends a lot of time outdoors. She takes her beer dark, her essays short, and her lunch before 11. She wants to spend her life telling (mostly) true stories.

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