Words you don’t need

Since I finished a round of editing two days ago, I’m going to mention something I looked for in the final polish—overused words. Eliminating unnecessary words strengthens your writing. I’ll mention the two main ones I had a problem with. They may or may not be a problem in your writing.

I expect you all know about Wordle, which I’ve blogged about before here and here. It’s a great tool to spot problem words. I copy and paste my whole novel into Wordle to identify the most frequently used words. If I see a word larger than I expect, then I know I need to eliminate as many instances of it as I can.

My after editing Wordle. Click to enlarge.

In my case, one word that loomed large was JUST. Often the word is redundant as in this case where the word started is sufficient:

“Meredith laid the clothes destined for the cleaners on the passenger seat, but just as she started to back her car out of the garage, another car drove in through the gate.”

Sometimes you can replace JUST with another word, such as only. But sometimes I like its precision as in:

“How had she given this man such power over her that with just a look, or a word, he broke through all her defenses?”

Of course, only would have worked in that sentence, but I prefer the sound of just. So use your judgment. By using Word’s find feature, I reduced my JUST count by more than fifty uses.

(Tip: if you enter the search word in Find and then click Reading Highlight > Highlight All, you can see your usage count.)

Another word to watch out for is THAT. I thought I had broken myself of the habit, but a check revealed I had still misused it too often. I eliminated as many as practical, which again was more than fifty. It’s a perfectly good word, and one that will be used correctly more often than not, but it has a way of sneaking in where it’s not needed. If you’re not aware how it slips in needlessly, here’s an example:

“Are you telling me that you never noticed that your book is prominently displayed in the gift shops here—local celebrity, and all that?”

I removed two instances of THAT without changing the meaning at all. But sometimes removing the word can confuse or change the meaning of the sentence. For example:

“Why had she let him skip years of his life without telling her anything that happened during them?”

If you deleted THAT in this sentence, it would mean she would be satisfied if he had given a vague answer such as, “Yeah, something happened.” However, what I wanted to convey is her dismay he hadn’t told her at least one thing.

Again, use your judgment. Most of the time you’ll find THAT is used correctly.

(Tip: In my writing, I’ve never found an unnecessary THAT at the beginning of a sentence, so you might try your search using lowercase spelling and selecting Match Case to cut down on the number of uses you need to check.)

A final word: I often make a distinction between dialogue and narrative when I edit. Dialogue should sound natural, and since we probably all use too many THATs and JUSTs in our casual speech, I am more lenient in their use in written dialogue.

Your turn: Try Wordle on a sample of your writing. Did you find any unexpected prominent words? It looks like I need to investigate my usage of BACK!?

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