Editor and writer’s consultant David A. Cathcart offers advice for aspiring writers on five words your writing can live without.
As a full-time freelance editor, I edit a lot of manuscripts, ranging from sci-fi and fantasy novels to scientific research papers on their way to peer-reviewed academic journals. In total, I probably edit about 500,000 words every month. That’s six million words each year. Even I have a difficult time believing that number, but it’s true.
As you can imagine, I encounter all sorts of writing each month, some of it stunning, and some of it not so much. I also see a lot of bad habits that writers of every caliber fall into on occasion. In particular, I see writers resorting to a handful of words that they think improve their manuscript but which actually detract from it instead.
As an editor, they also drive me crazy.
I’ve listed the top five offenders here, partly out of frustration (I’m writing this post while I’m supposed to be editing a particularly egregious manuscript) and partly in the hope that if your manuscript ever finds its way across my desk, I’ll have five fewer jobs to do.
This is my number one offender. For some reason, saying something is “precise” isn’t good enough for some people. Instead, it has to be “very precise.” The same goes for “loud.” We can’t allow that word to stand on its own, can we? Better make it “very loud.” While you’re at it, do the same for “close,” “far,” “quickly,” “soft,” and so on.
Get the picture? The word “very” is like a bicycle pump. It’s something you use to pump up another flaccid word. If you find yourself resorting to the word “very,” try this experiment: Delete it every time it shows up in your manuscript. Now give your manuscript a read. Missing anything? Probably not. However, you may notice a number of flaccid words lying around that no longer look so good now that “very” doesn’t precede them. That means it’s time to do some more deleting and replace those weak words with stronger words that evoke powerful images and feelings in the mind of the reader rather than simply convey information.
2. In order to
This phrase is almost never required. For example, does saying, “In order to understand how variable Y affects variable X when the liquid reaches boiling point Z. . . .” make things any clearer than saying, “To understand how variable Y affects variable X when the liquid reaches boiling point Z. . . .”? Of course not, so cut it out.
I see writers do this when their writing has veered off onto a tangent, especially when writing in first person. If you’re tempted to use this word, don’t. Second, if you are tempted to use this word, you probably have gone off on a tangent, so find out where and why that happened and then either cut out the tangent or figure out why your subconscious mind is telling you it’s necessary. Then find a clever way to transition in and out of that rabbit trail that doesn’t involve the word “anyway.”
Very few things in life happen immediately, i.e., “without any intervening time or space.” So I’m confident that few, if any, events in your story happen immediately either. When writers use this word, they mean to convey a sense of urgency, which is fine, but words like “immediately” or “suddenly” tend to have the opposite effect, especially when overused, because so many writers have abused such terms they have been completely bleached of meaning. Treat “immediately” (and “suddenly”) like “very” and cut out every instance of it in your manuscript. My prediction is that you will recognize a vast improvement—immediately.
“If he could just get through to the President, perhaps he could pull the world back from the brink of total nuclear annihilation.”
“I just want you to know how much I care.”
“Things just aren’t the same without you.”
What do the above three sentences have in common? Each one can be improved by deleting the word “just.” The simple truth is; it just isn’t necessary. Sure, “just” can function as an intensifier of sorts, but whenever I come across this word, I invariably delete it and then sigh with relief that the sentence is now shorter and clearer than it was before. Have faith in the power of your clear, simple prose, and you won’t feel the need to keep inflating your writing with such superfluous terms.
David Cathcart has written, co-written and edited over 40 published books, both fiction and non-fiction.