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!?

[tweetmeme source=”cassidylewis” only_single=false]

44 thoughts on “Words you don’t need

  1. I’ve seen authors do this in the past, and I’ve thought it was a good idea. I’ve always been concerned, however, about pasting your ENTIRE manuscript into the website… Obviously you’re find with this, but I’m just wondering if you know of any one else who has had concerns with this… or if I’m just overly paranoid. lol

    Is there a desktop or Office/word tool that will do the same thing, do you know?


    1. I don’t know of another ap. If anyone else does, I hope they speak up. I’m not really concerned because I never click the option to save the Wordle to the public gallery. Here’s an answer to your concern from the Wordle FAQ:

      Is Wordle safe to use on confidential or private text?

      If you do not save your Wordle to the gallery, no information leaves your workstation at any time. You may compose a Wordle, mess around with fonts, layouts, colors, take a screenshot, print it out, without ever sending any information over the network.

      If you do save your Wordle to the gallery, then only the word frequencies for the words that appear in the Wordle are sent. There’s no way to reconstruct the source text from that information. You have to exercise your own judgement as to whether the Wordle you’ve created exposes private information. Wordles cannot be deleted from the gallery once created, as there are no authenticated users.


  2. Wine showed up far more than it probably should, but I left it alone 😉

    I also over-use ‘just’. I’ve become sensitive to that word, so I tend to catch it as I write now. I can’t recall the others because I did this some time ago, I guess I should have saved it.


  3. I’ve got the word BACK a lot as well Linda and lots of SMILED so guess I better make some people miserable more often, so they stop smiling heh heh
    I didn’t save my Wordle, I just took a screen shot of mine and didn’t save anything just to be safe.


    1. Yes, I just take the screenshot too. You know, I expected smiled to be one of significant words, but I just did a count and I used the word pulled as many times as I did smiled, and that astounds me. I’m going to have to investigate that! Pulled?! 😕


  4. just, almost, always – those are words I use too much. I’m sure there are others but I don’t even need to plug into wordle to know those! lol that said, being aware of them I am trying to cut them out of my stories as much as possible.


      1. Overusing action words like “back” “pulled” “turned” etc is usually an indication of too much superficial action. When those ones come up in my stories a lot, I go back and look for places where the characters are moving around, but not necessarily “doing” anything. 🙂


  5. Good reminder!

    I am ghostwriting a non-fiction book. I pasted my current chapter in Wordle and found the bug: 18 instances of “just”. I am off with my chopping toolkit!



  6. I’m sort of surprised that Renee is slightly larger than Meredith. Huh.

    Pretty Wordle, by the way. Now I totally want do this again! I made one after my first draft, but lots has changed since then. 🙂 (However: I’m guessing back will still be too big in mine, too.)


  7. I just realized how many times I use the word just. It is in just about every sentence. I think its just because I’m from the south and we just talk that way.

    HEHE – I bet I have some fixin’ to do in February. Great post Linda.


  8. I always wondered what words I over use when writing. So, I tried out Wordle using the first chapter of my Work In Progress. JUST was huge! I guess I’ll be going back over this piece of work with more of a focus on that wonderful word.

    By the way, I love Wordle. So much fun.


      1. “Back” wasn’t as big of a problem for me as “like” and “one” were. They were right on the heals of “just.” I’m sure if I had pasted more than just the first chapter I might have had more of a problem with “back,” though.

        I showed my daughter the site and now she’s ready to email a link to all her friends. lol

        I’ll have to try it again with the entire novel once I finish writing it.


  9. This is a GREAT idea! I put one of my FridayFlash pieces in and saw “took” looming large and went back to look at the story. Sure enough, in about three paragraphs there were six ‘tooks’ (and not the Hobbit variety).

    Thanks for a neat new writing tool.

    p.s. What did you mean about searching in Word and “Reading Highlight > Highlight All”? Is that in 2007? I would have said I was a Word expert and I’ve never seen that before.


    1. It’s an eye opener, isn’t it? Glad you found it useful. Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

      Yes, I use 2007. When I go to Find and Replace, on the Find tab there are 4 buttons along the bottom. The second one is Reading Highlight. If you put in your search term, then click that button you can choose Highlight All. This is especially helpful to see at a glance how many times a word appears on the same page.


  10. Can I recommend Autocrit? Wordle is pretty, but Autocrit does the business. You can check 500 words free, or more for a small annual fee. It covers word repeats (my bugbear) and other things like sentence length, dialogue tags, repeated phrases, pronouns etc..

    I always run my writing through it, and it always finds something I’ve missed.


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Lexi. I tried Autocrit a couple times, the free version, but it flagged so many things that I didn’t want it to. I probably didn’t know how to use it well. I guess you’d have to pay to get the full sense of it, though, because 500 words isn’t much to go on. I’ll take another look.


  11. I noticed “Renee” as a character name you used a lot. You’re awesome, I never see Renee as a character. I did one as well, very interesting. “Just” is in my wordle too. I find I’m always removing just, that, and smile. My characters like to smile and frown a lot in the rough drafts.


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