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Refresh your writing with these Self-Editing Tips

It is time to Spring Clean our writing habits with precise, fresh language. Jessica Morrell suggests searching for these culprits that can easily sneak into our writing.

Declutter Your Sentences by Eliminating These Junk Words

  1. Breathingdeep breathsbarely breathinginhalingexhaling, and other lung movements.  Many writers of all levels reveal their characters’ emotions and reactions using their breath, lack of breath, breathlessness, or as their main method of reacting and showing emotion. “I took a deep breath” is a phrase I’ve seen so often it’s a cliche.  Unless a character has the breath knocked out of him or is in the midst of childbirth, avoid focusing on breathing as your main means to create emotion. Instead collect a variety of mannerisms, reactions, gestures, and body language individual to each character.
  2. Said exclamations: Today’s readers are sophisticated and understand when characters are talking and that at times the character’s voices and emotions change. The notion is the ‘he said, she said’ parts of fiction appear invisible. Readers understand that a character might sound shrill by the circumstances and dialogue spoken so you don’t need to proclaim, Mary Ellen shrieked shrilly. Never write Jason emoted, pleaded, bantered, snarked, smirked, blasted, bleated, peeped, groused. Now occasionally in the midst of a horror story, you might want to underline how terrified a character is, but consider dabbing these attributions in only for the most terrifying or surprising moments.
  3. Down or up. As in Rachel sat down. Now Rachel can collapse into a chair, or sidle into an empty seat in a dark theater, or ease onto a sofa, or flump onto a bed. Sit and sat means a person is lowering himself or herself.  As in down. More accurately sit means supporting your weight on your buttocks.  Question your use of up. It seems so innocent, doesn’t it? Blithe stood up. Stood means up because standing means a person is upright, supporting himself on his feet.  Denzel stood, joining the screaming fans. Also, do not write grabbed up; grabbed suffices. Avoid appending up to spoke, hurry, lift, climb, and rose.
  4. Towards, backwards, forwards, upwards, downwards.  Replace with toward, backward, forward, upward, downward.
  5. ClichésOh how, I hate thee. Eliminate all your I took a deep breath. Ditto for eyes widened, out of the corner of my eye, jaw dropped, raven locks, and steely blue eyes. Then there is:  Each and every, knife to my heart, piece of cake, fire in the belly, he/she took my breath away. And before you write about your characters staring into each other’s eyes, think about how often it happens in real life and how often it happens in your stories.
  6. Mind matters, especially in the first person. You don’t need to report on how the character is reviewing things in his/her mind because this distances the reader and reminds her there is a narrator instead of the reader living amid the story world. So eliminate ‘mind raced‘ ‘thoughts raced‘ ‘mind’s eye‘ (a truly lame term), and ‘searching her mind.’
  7. Really. I mean really? Do you need it? Is the weather really cold or is it frigid or dangerously cold?
  8. I saw. If you’re writing in close first person you don’t need the I saw or I looked part of the sentence. Example: I saw ahead of me three leprechauns frolicking merrily in the grass. Instead: Ahead three leprechauns frolicked merrily in the grass. Why? The reader wants to pretend that he or she is spotting the leprechauns along with the character. Also describing the leprechauns implies the narrator or character is seeing or observing. No need to state it.
  9. Literally means exactly as described or in a literal or strict sense. It does not mean quite, actually or really. Wrong: I was so mad I was literally shaking like a leaf and red-faced. Or, I was so terrified I literally jumped out of my skin. Or, Her death literally brought me to my knees.  Better: The playoffs were watched by literally millions of fans.
  10. Basically, essentially, obviously, basically, totally. Hint: question every adverb you use with an -ly ending because many are so overused they’ve become meaningless. However, the larger issue is many people sow these words into their stories without understanding their correct meanings mostly to maximize or intensify. Over time many adverbs have become meaningless. Basically means at a basic level or fundamental sense, not almost or mostly. Essentially means the essence of something or in an essential manner, not almost or often.  Practically means in a practical manner not almost or mostly. Totally means completely, in every part, not really.
  11. Moments. I’ve read manuscripts where characters pause or think or kiss for only a moment hundreds of times throughout the story. There are plenty of ways to describe brief actions or thoughts.
  12. Suddenly. Because if you’re reading fiction you assume that actions, twists, and surprises will happen abruptly. They are devices used to increase tension and suspense. No need to announce it.
  13. That. If a sentence works without that, ditch it. Easy, right?
  14. Just. No, I’m not just kidding. Too many of us (guilt-hand raised) use this one out of habit. 
  15. Prepositional phrases. Prepositions are the carbohydrates of language. Of course, we need them for clarity but use with care. Instead of a book of poetry, use poetry book. Instead of a tower of flames, use towering flames.

Kiffer’s Note:  So here’s the trick: When writing your first draft, write it. Don’t worry about the trees—words. Concentrate on the forest—the story. Then, when you are editing fix these issues. Replace dullards with the perfect words that will move your story forward, increase tension, enhance the atmosphere, add depth to your characters, make your dialogue pop, and immerse your reader into the world that you have created.

 A handy tool to help you recognize if these egregious junk words have infiltrated your manuscript is the “Find and Replace” tool that  can be found in WORD or other word processors. This tool finds and highlights specific words so that you can replace if needed to insure that every word counts. Click on this link, if you would like more information and how this tool works:

Don’t always use the first word or phrase that pops into your head because you might be using rusty, old clichés. Or fix these dullards when you edit. Like stock still, fast asleep, choking back tears, stirred up a hornet’s nest, did a double take, under the radar, and never in her wildest dreams.

You are welcome to copy and paste this article into a document and print it for your writing craft and tools notebook for ease of access while you are editing you work-in-progress.

Jessica Page Morrell

Jessica Page Morrell is a top-tier developmental editor for books and screenplays. Her articles have appeared in Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines. She is known for explaining the hows and whys of what makes for excellent writing and for sharing very clear examples that examine the technical aspects of writing that emphases layering and subtext. Her books on writing craft are considered “a must have” for any serious writer’s toolkit.

Jessica will teach the Master Craft Writing Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020  and will present sessions during the conference. She and Kiffer will also host a fun kaffeeklatch for Word Nerds at CAC20.

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