Removing unnecessary words from your writing: five examples

When I’m browsing writing forums, I see a repeated concern from new writers.  “My story is too long.”  Depending on the genre, your book should be between 80,000 – 100,000 words, tops.  Fantasy lets you get away with up to 120,000, but it’s the exception.  Some, like YA, need to be even shorter, in the 60 -70K range.

Today’s post is all about trimming the fat from your writing.  When I finished my first book, it was around 85,000 words.  I got it down to 80,000 without dropping any characters, or removing any chapters.  All I did was eliminate unnecessary words, the dead weight from my writing.

To show you what I mean, I’ve selected five random paragraphs from five books on Amazon.  I didn’t read the book, or even look at the authors.  I’m not even concerned whether this is “good” or “bad” writing.  But I want to show you how easy it is to kill words and still be left with a good paragraph.


Example #1

Original
Images of Trin drift unbidden through my mind – her caress, her welcoming smile, the curve of her face.  Since the time we started dating, she represented a welcome respite, a safe harbor, to the shit storm from which my life had just started to emerge after so many years in the Bureau.

Revised
Images of Trin drift through my mind – her caress, her smile, the curve of her face.  Since we started dating, she represented a safe harbor to the shit storm from my life after so many years in the Bureau.

What did I remove, and why?

  • Unbidden – We already know the thoughts are drifting, which calls to mind a certain looseness.  To put another way, thoughts would never drift with purpose through your mind.  They could only really drift unbidden.  It’s redundant
  • welcoming – smiles are normally pretty welcoming already, this didn’t add much
  • “Since the time” – Since already means “from the intervening time” adding “the time” is redundant
  • welcome respite = safe harbor.  They mean the same thing.  Pick one or the other.  I could have as easily left welcome respite and killed safe harbor.
  • “from which my life had just started to emerge” – this is clunky, so, cut.  Also, the word “just” never adds anything.  To a find on “just” in your manuscript and kill it.

Words removed: 53 words originally, down to 40.  13 words removed, or 25%

Example #2

Original
Thoughtfully, the moon made another short appearance, and the policeman could see two shadowy figures on the path.  Matt thought they were men, but it was hard to tell.  They walked confidently, obviously used to this clandestine trip.  The first one led, flashing the powerful torch this way and that in order to find the safest passage along the rough lane

Revised
The moon made another appearance, and the policeman could see two figures on the path.  Matt thought they were men.  They walked confidently, obviously used to this clandestine trip.  The first one led, flashing the torch in order to find the safest passage along the rough lane.

What did I remove, and why?

  • Thoughtfully and short appearance – Thoughtfully is an odd way to start the sentence and the exact duration of the moon’s appearance (short, long) seems to have no bearing.  I get the point, the author is saying it’s overcast and the moon is breaking through the clouds, but I felt I got the same vibe with our without the “short”
  • shadowy – the figures are lit by moonlight.  They’re already shadowy.  This isn’t bringing anything to the table
  • But it was hard to tell – Matt only thought they were men, so obviously he was having trouble figuring it out.  The second half isn’t needed.
  • Powerful – meh.  Judgement call. I didn’t like “powerful torch”, mostly because I wasn’t clear how a torch could be powerful.  Does that mean it’s a bigger torch?  More fire?
  • “this way and that” – you can do a global find for the phrase “this way and that” and remove it 100% of the time.  It never adds anything.

Words removed: 61 words originally, down to 47.  14 words removed, or 23%

Example #3

Original
Looking at them is unsettling.  They’re so comfortable that you almost don’t notice the strangeness of their dress and posture, until you do.  Even though looking at them gives me a strange, tingling feeling like I’ve forgotten something, I can’t seem to look away

Revised
Note – this is a good paragraph!  Not much to trim.

Looking at them is unsettling.  They’re so comfortable that you don’t notice the strangeness of their dress and posture, until you do.  Even though looking at them gives me a feeling like I’ve forgotten something, I can’t look away.

What did I remove, and why?

  • Almost – words like almost, just, only… they’re filler.  in 99% of the cases, they can be removed.
  • strange, tingling – the author used the word strange to describe their dress in the previous sentence, so using it again right afterwards to describe a feeling is a poor choice.  Tingling isn’t helping out either.

Words removed: 44 words originally, down to 39.  5 words removed, or 11%

Example #4

Original
Saturday traffic in Boston was notoriously thick.  Exiting the Mass Pike onto the winding streets of densely populated Brighton required gratuitous use of her horn and flashing lights to get anyone to budge.  Even then, several of the other drivers (Massholes, they were rightly called) flipped her off.

Revised
Note – I really liked this paragraph too.  Not a lot I want to change.

Saturday traffic in Boston was notoriously thick.  Exiting the Mass Pike onto the winding streets of Brighton required gratuitous use of her horn to get anyone to budge.  Even then, several of the other drivers (Massholes, they were rightly called) flipped her off.

What did I remove, and why?

  • densely populated – the writer already did a good job calling the traffic “notoriously thick”.  This is just piling on to the point, so, cut.
  • and flashing lights – I think the paragraph would have been fine to leave it in, but this isn’t an article about leaving in words.  I killed it because I felt like the action associated with using your horn vs. using your lights is different.  Using your horn is a very active motion, banging on your steering wheel, whereas using flashing lights (I assume this is a cop) is less tactile.  It’s a total judgement call, but I think the sentence is more immediate with only the horn

Words removed: 48 words originally, down to 43.  5 words removed, or 10%

Example 5

Original
Bernice grinned and nodded slowly.  “So you know what I mean when I say special brownie.  Not like the last poor girl who thought it was my grandma’s special recipe or some shit.”  She shook her head slowly.  “Dunno what she was thinking.  Do I look like Betty Fucking Crocker to you?”

Revised
“So you know what I mean when I say special brownie.  Not like the last girl who thought it was my grandma’s special recipe or some shit.”  She shook her head.  “Dunno what she was thinking.  Do I look like Betty Fucking Crocker to you?”

What did I remove, and why?

  • Bernise grinned and nodded slowly – it’s a lot of stage direction, and I didn’t think it brought anything to the line.  Also, I’d suggest killing every instance of “speed modifier” adverbs (quickly, slowly) from your writing.  They never add value.  In this sentence, does it really made a difference whether they nodded or nodded slowly?  Nodding is already a deliberate motion
  • shook her head slowly – same as above.  She shook her head or she shook her head slowly.  The added word isn’t helping.  Also, the original paragraph has a lot of slow moving head motions.  If the author was trying to get across that Bernice is deliberate in her speech or motions, there’s better ways to do it with using “nodded slowly” or “shook her head slowly.”

Words removed: 52 words originally, down to 45.  7 words removed, or 13%


It’s that easy.  If you’re ever in a position of thinking your story is too long, I guarantee you can remove 10% of the word count, minimum, by cleaning up your writing.  I can’t imagine any first draft where this isn’t the case.

 



Categories: How to write, Instructively Bad Writing

Tags: , , ,

2 replies

  1. Oh VERY helpful…I particularly liked the concrete examples. One of my writing goals is to be succinct (because I never am when I write). I will come back to this post from time to time, I think…

Trackbacks

  1. Adverbs are bad: Four ways they'll ruin your writing - Michael James

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: