As a professional editor, one of my primary responsibilities is to work with clients to polish the language in their manuscripts. Through the course of editing my own novels and working with clients to shine up their manuscripts, I’ve learned that one of the main goals of a late-stage editorial pass over any manuscript is to prune unnecessary words. In fact, there are a number of specific words I intentionally target for culling. Why? Because they’re overused and often unnecessary.
Novice writers often rely heavily on these words. Some of them come easily because they’re used often in speech; others make sentences clunky but feel necessary for clarity. But as our writing improves and we learn how to better translate our ideas into written words, it becomes apparent that these words are more of a hindrance than a help.
In this post, I’ve included a few words that most professional writers and editors will cut as often as possible. You can use this post as a guide to identify overused words in your own writing and cut them out to make your work clearer and more concise.
This word often seems necessary as a prepositional phrase but isn’t. Here’s an example [emphasis is my own in all quotes]:
I never thought that I would lose such a large investment.
This is a paraphrased example from a manuscript I edited recently. As you can see, the sentence works fine – in fact, it’s clearer and more impactful – when written, “I never thought I would lose such a large investment.” Although there are some instances where the word that is helpful, in most cases, you’re better off without.
This word is common when spoken aloud. “I just need to run to the store.” “She just told me she needs another onion.” But when you look carefully, you can clearly see the word just is neither necessary nor helpful in the sentence construction. Here are two back-to-back examples I just found in my own writing:
So I stop moving and just look around. I lie on my back, just as if I were lying on the grass in a park to gaze up at a clear night sky.
You can see clearly that both sentences work perfectly well without the word just. And while it might be helpful in one case, it’s a word that is repeated so often, it quickly becomes overused. As an editor, I might leave one of those iterations of the word just, but I would definitely cut at least one, if not both.
There are a few instances where the word just is helpful or necessary. The first is when you’re referring to a temporal moment immediately prior to the one you’re currently in. For example, “A bomb just went off downtown.” The word just tells the listener that something happened very recently, and that temporal immediacy is critical. [I used the word just this way in the sentence just before the blockquote.]
The second is in comparisons. “She looks just like her mother.” Similar to the first instance, in this case just is used to create a sense of comparative immediacy. It’s a shorter version of exactly or precisely – and since it’s shorter, that makes it preferable in my mind.
So is another word commonly used in speech. It’s best used as a conjunction, particularly in establishing dependency: “My dog escaped from the yard, so I ran after him.” If the dog hadn’t escaped from the yard, I wouldn’t have had to chase him. The word so both combines phrases and establishes causality.
But so is often misused at the beginning of sentences. Here’s one I found in a client’s work recently:
He fell into illusions, while I fell into delusions.
So I pondered and prayed over the things he said, seeking a revelation as to what he meant.
In this instance, the word so doesn’t establish a dependent or causal relationship. It establishes a new paragraph, but the contents of the new paragraph don’t directly rely on information from the previous paragraph. So is unnecessary and distracting here, and should be cut.
Unless used in dialogue, where the word very is more understandable because it’s often used in the spoken word, this is the most boring modifier in the book. Very can modify nearly every adjective and noun in the English language (although it cannot modify verbs) and should nearly always be replaced with something more specific or – better yet – eliminated entirely.
Really follows the same line as very. It’s generic, boring, and distracting. If you encounter this in your writing, 99 times out of 100 you should strike it on the spot. In dialogue, where you’re trying to mimic spoken language, really is slightly more acceptable. Even so, I recommend cutting it as often as possible, so that when it does appear, it hasn’t already been used a thousand times. I just went through a manuscript I edited in July and found that I struck nearly every instance of really in the book – of which there were more than 110 in a 60,000-word manuscript.
This is just about the most overused adjective in the book. It’s especially abused by novice writers who are in the process of expanding their vocabulary. Beautiful is a simple and elegant word that tempts writers into using it as liberally as salt and pepper. When used this often, it quickly becomes meaningless. It should be used as infrequently as possible in order to maximize its impact when you do choose to use it.
Because often seems necessary to connect sentences or ideas. After all, how else are you going to say that you did one thing as a result of another without the word because? Here’s an example from a client manuscript [names have been changed]:
Although Etna wanted to join me that night, I did not invite her because I wasn’t sure if she would be welcome at the dinner party.
More often than not, this word can be deleted and the sentences will still make sense. Here are two ways I would edit this:
Although Etna wanted to join me that night, I did not invite her. I wasn’t sure if she would be welcome at the dinner party.
Although Etna wanted to join me that night, I did not invite her – I wasn’t sure if she would be welcome at the dinner party.
Both cases employ punctuation to imply causality in place of the word because. Because readers assume that sentences in a manuscript will flow logically from one statement to the next (and if they don’t, you’ve got a bigger problem than overused words), you don’t have to use explicit language to create a logical flow of ideas.
Of course, you’ll notice that I used these very words a few times in this blog post alone! In English, there are always exceptions, and none of these are hard and fast rules. These words don’t need to be cut without exception every single time you see them, but they should be used more judiciously than they currently are.
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