by Dave Pasquantonio
Congratulations—you finished your novel! You crafted nail-biting tension and perfect character arcs. You killed darlings and kept reader promises. And that ending? It sings. You’re done!
But wait—93,827 words? Uh-oh. You really wanted to come in under 90K. And that last editing pass was thorough. You killed off three secondary characters, consolidated scenes, and took out those boring pages where Wilhelm and Gene talked about that time they saw the moose. There’s nothing left to cut!
Or is there?
No matter if you’re writing a lyrical literary short story or a fast-paced genre novel, there are always words and phrases that can be removed. Those words, they’re like remora fish—they attach themselves to the shark for a free ride.
Here are some words and phrases to look for, along with a few search tips.
Just: When I’m cranking out dialogue, I type “just” way too much. Later, I delete nearly every “just.” It’s my most overused remora word. And it’s usually a just a filler word (get it?) You’ll find it in stretches of dialogue when there’s a lot of back-and-forth between characters. Search for “ just “ (with a space around the word) so that you won’t be slowed down looking at “adjust” or “justice.” I also draft too many sentences that begin with “Just,” so I search for “. Just” (that’s a period, a space, and “just”) to capture those instances.
Dialogue tags: Trust your readers to know who’s talking, especially in scenes with only two characters. Once you establish who spoke first and who else is in the scene, you can cut out a lot of “he said” and “she said.” When editing an early draft, you can probably cut at least half your dialogue tags and lose no meaning. This will make a big difference in your word count.
Adverbs: Some writers say that ALL adverbs must die. I don’t agree. Adverbs do have their place. Too many, though, and maybe your verbs aren’t strong enough, or you’re relying too heavily on verbs and not enough on other descriptions. Do your characters walk lazily? Maybe they can saunter. If they talk forlornly, maybe they can slump their shoulders instead. Adverbs can point out places where you might better use a finer brush to paint your picture.
Was/Were: A search for “was” and “were” can uncover some trouble spots. “I was running” is stronger if written as “I ran.” However, “I was running when the monster attacked” and “I ran when the monster attacked” mean two very different things, so read your original phrase and changed phrase aloud to ensure you’ve kept your meaning.
In other words: Kill this phrase whenever possible. In other words, you usually don’t need it. That saves three words right there!
Quite: If your main character says that something is “quite large,” chastise them. In quite a lot of instances, “quite” is a word that can safely be deleted.
Very: Is your character “very hungry”? Maybe instead, they’re starving or famished. Or more likely they’re simply hungry. Search for “ very “ to find this remora word, and ensure that you actually need it. It’s a very easy word to overuse.
So: “Marguerite was so beautiful.” Meh. “Marguerite was beautiful” reads better (although in my opinion, she’s stunning). “So” is a remora that likes to attach itself to more important words. Search for “so “ (with the space) to track it down. Also, you can usually cut out instances of “So” starting a sentence (search for “So,” with the comma). It’s so easy!
That: “I remember the day that we met” can become “I remember the day we met” without losing a lick of meaning. “That” can be important—it’s a shapeshifter of a word and can serve as an adverb, determiner, pronoun, or conjunction—so proceed with caution.
Little motion words: “I sat down.” “I stood up.” So easy to type, so hard to find. I spend a lot of time looking at every verb to ensure I’ve swept away remora words like “up” and “down” when applicable. Also, look for multiple prepositions. Is something “down under” or “up from”? Stand up on the floor, walk to your computer, and get cutting.
Question marks: Search for question marks that aren’t part of dialogue (search for ? followed by a space). This will help you find pieces of internal dialogue that you might be able to trim. Internal dialogue is fine when used in the right proportions, but it’s also a place of all thought and no action. Find those instances of question marks, and they might lead you to some overwritten passages.
Small movements: You have to give the reader some stage direction. But when overused, small movements become tiring. When every string of dialogue is followed with “Emma walked to the fridge and took out some bacon” or “Emma lifted herself out of the chair and gazed out the window,” it’s too much. Fun tip: use little action figures to act out scenes, moving them only when instructed by the words on the page. I did this, and found that my little action figures moved A LOT more than they should.
Do you have your own remora words and phrases? Leave them in the comments below. And if you’re looking for more, search the Web for “weasel words” or “filler words” You’ll find plenty of lists.
Oh, and that 93,827 number? That was the word count of my novel’s next-to-final draft, and I ended up just shy of 89,000 after stripping out unneeded words and phrases—one or two at a time. Lean and mean prose is better than indecisive and flabby prose, so get searching and hit that delete key often. No more free rides!
Dave Pasquantonio writes quirky speculative fiction, and he loves mysteries, robots, parallel Earths, and sarcastic main characters. He is a board member at The Writers’ Loft and runs the Query Support Group and two Adult Critique Groups, and he writes a weekly real estate column for the Walpole Times.