10 Words and Phrases to Cut From Your Manuscript

When you write a book, every word matters.

A huge part of self-editing is trimming the fat. Chances are the first draft of your book could be thousands of words shorter if the writing was more concise. It’s better to have 50,000 words of quality than 70,000 words where a big chunk of it is fluff.

For example, which of these sentences has more impact?

  • The resounding twang of lute strings seemed to breathe life into the tavern.
  • The twang of lute strings breathed life into the tavern.

The first sentence was part of my first draft of A Bard’s Lament. By the time it was published and editors and I had worked together, the second sentence was used. It’s snappier and shorter and has more of an impact while getting the exact same message across. Wordiness can kill your writing.

So what can you do to cut down on unneeded wordiness? Here’s a checklist of words and phrases to search (Ctrl + F or Command + F for Mac) to edit or cut down on if needed. Your writing will be more concise and snappier, and your readers will thank you for it.

Before we begin, don’t forget to sign up for Poppy’s monthly newsletter for a free book!

1. Adverbs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King

If you’ve studied writing at all, you might have heard that adverbs must be avoided when possible in writing. Though they’re OK sometimes, too many of them can make your writing weak and clunky.

Which of these sentences has more impact?

  • “You’re kidding me,” she said laughingly as she gently picked up the knife behind her, stepping slowly towards the door.
  • “You’re kidding me,” she laughed, plucking the knife from behind her and inching towards the door.

Most of the time, a stronger verb can be used instead of an adverb to have a stronger effect.

Examples

  • Walk quickly –> dart, run, skip
  • Laugh loudly –> guffaw, roar
  • Say quickly –> babble

Don’t just copy and paste these; they’re only ideas!

What To Do

Search “ly” in your document. You’ll probably get thousands of results, but go through them and find the adverbs. Words like “probably” or “usually” are often fine, but see what adverbs can be replaced with stronger verbs. The sentences will be snappier and the more powerful verb will create a clearer picture in your readers’ minds.

2. Seemed to…

“Seemed to” often appears in books but rarely offers anything to the sentence. If you look at the example given at the beginning of this article, the twang of lute strings breathing life into the tavern serves just as well as “seemed to breathe life into the tavern.”

Examples

  • Warmth seemed to radiate from her. –> Warmth radiated from her.
  • The noise seemed to be coming from behind the radiator. –> The noise came from behind the radiator.
  • She seemed upset. –> She was upset.

Even though the last example doesn’t make the word count shorter, it makes the writing more confident and clear.

What To Do

Search “seemed to” (or “seems to/seem to” if your book is in the present tense) and see if it can be cut out.

3. (Character) saw/heard/noticed/realised/felt/remembered…

These can really draw a reader out of a book and add unecessary fluff. Don’t tell us what the character is perceiving; make the reader perceive it themselves!

Examples

  • She saw something thin and writhing beneath the bed. –> Something thin writhed beneath the bed.
  • He heard the sounds of footsteps outside. –> Footsteps pattered outside.
  • I noticed a thin layer of sweat coating his skin. –> A thin layer of sweat coated his skin.
  • She realised he was wearing the missing bowtie. –> He was wearing the missing bowtie.
  • He felt she was being rude. –> She was being rude.
  • I remembered there was a locket upstairs in my room. –> There was a locket upstairs in my room.

What To Do

Simply search the above words in your document and see if it would be better to cut it out. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but a lot of the time it is. Other similar words include If there’s a chance to get a sentence across with the same meaning with fewer words, take it.

4. Really, very

These modifiers are BORING and everyone hates them.

But seriously, get rid of them. They’re even worse than adverbs. They can almost always be replaced with a better adjective.

Examples

  • The elephant was really big. –> The elephant was enormous.
  • She was very clever. –> She was bright/intelligent/a genius.
  • “This food is very nice!” she said. –> “This food is wonderful!” she said.
  • I was really disappointed. –> I was devastated.
  • She was really pretty. –> She was stunning/beautiful.

What To Do

Search “really” and “very” in your document and see which ones you can change to better adjectives. Your readers will thank you.

5. Down, up

You can sit, rather than sit down. The worst offenders are things like “rise up” (you can “rise” and it means the same thing) and “lower down” (if you lower something, the meaning of it going down is explained in the word “lower”).

Examples

  • “At once!” he barked, and she sat down. –> “At once!” he barked, and she sat.
  • He raised up his head and groaned. –> He raised his head and groaned.
  • She lay down on the bed. –> She lay on the bed.

What To Do

Search “up” and “down” in your document, but read it carefully before adjusting any sentences. Some phrases need the words up and down, such as “pick up” vs “pick.”

6. Start, begin

These ones are obvious once you’ve noticed them. Why do characters have to begin doing something when they can just do it?

Examples

  • He chuckled to himself and started cleaning his gun. –> He chuckled to himself and cleaned his gun.
  • The little girl began to scream. –> The little girl screamed.
  • I turned my back on him and started to walk away. –> I turned my back on him and walked away.
  • They stared at each other for a moment, then started to laugh. –> They stared at each other for a moment, then laughed.

What To Do

It shouldn’t take too long to do a search of “start” (which will also find the past tense “started”) and “begin/began” and delete them. Almost all of them will be perfectly fine to cut!

7. And then…

“And then” is such a boring lead on. Action happens as you tell it, and most people assume that the actions you’re describing follow on from each other. Don’t bog readers down with horrible “and then”s. If you must use it, keep it to a minimum. If “then” is required, at least get rid of the “and.”

Examples

  • She slapped him hard across the cheek and then she threw the wine in his face. –> She slapped him hard across the cheek and threw the wine in his face.
  • The little girl ran into the door and then burst into tears. –> The little girl ran into the door. She burst into tears.
  • I organised all my files and then I left the office in a hurry. –> I organised all my files and left the office in a hurry.

What To Do

Search those “and then”s and get rid of them!

8. Suddenly…

This three-syllable word makes action a lot less sudden. Most of the time, you don’t need it!

Examples

  • Her eyes suddenly widened. –> Her eyes widened.
  • Suddenly, he grabbed her wrist. –> He grabbed her wrist.
  • He suddenly burst out laughing. –> He burst out laughing.

What To Do

It’s unlikely there are too many “suddenly”s in your book, so cutting them out shouldn’t take long.

9. Cliches

It’s easy to fall back on common expressions without realising they’re cliches. These can be trickier to cut out of your manuscript because they can come in many forms. Don’t fall back on these unimaginative phrases.

Examples

  • Avoid it like the plague.
  • It rained like cats and dogs.
  • Clear as crystal.
  • You look like you’ve seen a ghost.
  • As cold as ice.

What To Do

A great idea is to research common expressions in the location in which your book takes place. If you’re writing in a fantasy or made-up world, there’s a huge opportunity to introduce your readers to world-specific phrases (such as “Thank (universe’s god’s name)” or other unique phrases).

10. Redundant Phrases

Redundant phrases are also a huge part of the English language that are easy to miss. They don’t add anything to the meaning of the word and fill your book with unnecessary fluff.

Examples

  • Free gift
  • Armed gunman
  • Advance warning
  • Fellow classmates/colleagues
  • Natural instinct
  • Proposed plan

ThoughtCo has a longer list of these phrases to keep in mind.

What To Do

Read through your manuscript again and make sure every sentence sings. Your readers deserve the best!

Self-editing involves discipline and cutting down on things that might have seemed genius at first, but is really clogging up your writing. Cut out these ten words and phrases from your manuscript and it’ll be one step closer to be ready for publishing.

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