When you're writing your book, it is common to include a lot of words that you don't need. This doesn't mean you are a bad writer, because everyone does this.
Additionally, there are so many words that are unnecessary, and many authors don't even know it. As you gain experience writing, you will find that these words feel stale, and there are better words to replace them.
Thankfully, using the advice in this article, you can turn weak phrases into good writing and become a better writer in the process.
So what do you do about all of these words, and how can you find them?
- The different types of words to cut
- A list of specific words you should avoid
- How to find and replace these words
Note: in this article, we will be using ProWritingAid and Atticus as software examples to get this job done. These are our best recommendations for a proofreading software and a writing software, respectively. However, much of this can also be done in almost any writing program you use. It just might take a little longer. Some of these links may also be affiliate links.
Types of Words to Cut
While we do provide a list of the most common words to look for, there are whole categories of words that you should avoid in your writing, unless you have a specific reason to use them.
Adverbs are words that usually end in “–ly”. They can be helpful, but should not be overused. Adverbs are a good example of “telling, not showing”, when there is a better action verb or descriptor to convey the same information.
To Be Verbs
To be verbs include the words was, is, are, were, etc. While these verbs are certainly necessary, they often act as a big signpost that a better verb could be used.
For example, instead of saying “John was tired,” you could say, “John rubbed his eyes,” or, “John collapsed in his chair.”
Once again, to be verbs provide a clue that you are telling instead of showing.
To be verbs are also a potential sign of passive voice. For example, instead of saying “the ball was thrown by John,” you could say “John threw the ball.”
A prepositional phrase is a short phrase that ends with a noun, phrases that often increase the length of the sentence.
An example could be, “at the store,” or, “near the middle,”. There are usually better ways to phrase these sentences.
While a little harder to spot using a find and replace feature, run-on sentences are sentences that go on for too long. There are two kinds of run-ons: fused and comma splices. A fused sentence consists of two independent clauses fused together with no punctuation; a comma splice has two independent clauses joined together by a comma.
To fix them, you must either insert a coordinating conjunction, separate them into two separate sentences with a period, or use a semi-colon.
Nominalization are verbs or adjectives that are turned into a noun, when it would be better to keep them as an adjective or verb.
Examples include words like collection, analysis, slowness, intention, accuracy, disagreement, or suggestion.
For example, the phrase, “she performed an analysis,” would usually be better off said, “she analyzed.”
Tautologies are words and phrases that mean the same thing, meaning you can cut one of the words.
Examples include things like “evening sunset”, or “autobiography of her life.” In these examples “evening” and “of her life” mean the same thing as “sunset” and “autobiography” respectively. You don't need both.
Excessive Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are necessary when constructing good dialogue, as they inform the reader who is speaking.
However, if you have a conversation between two people, putting a dialogue tag at the end of every single piece of dialogue becomes excessive. Sooner or later, the reader will know who is speaking, and the tags begin to slow down the pacing.
Therefore, when you have two people talking, include the dialogue tags at the beginning of the conversation, but remove them as the conversation progresses.
We all have these, and it is different for every author. There are words that you rely on more than others. These could be words like grin, sigh, suddenly, etc.
Get to know your own personal writing style and identify the words you use as a crutch. ProWritingAid can help with this, as they have a tool that quickly identifies your most-used words.
Specific Words to Avoid
Now that we've covered some of the basic categories of words to avoid, let's look at individual words that should be a big warning sign for you.
Feeling and Thinking Words
These are words like felt, feel, think, thought, wonder, ponder, understand, realize, or believe.
All of these words are usually unnecessary, and they are signs that you are telling, not showing. There are usually better verbs to use, or you can rephrase the sentence to show more.
This way, you are not distancing yourself from the viewpoint character. You can get directly inside their head, instead of describing what they are feeling.
Example: instead of saying “I thought the food tasted horrible,” you could say, “Yuck! That food made me gag.”
“Then” is a commonly used word to transition in a sequence of events. It is overused and can sound basic. Try rearranging your words, and use “and” instead.
Example: instead of “I tripped on the dance floor, then fell flat on my face, then everyone laughed at me,” say, “I tripped on the dance floor, fell flat on my face, and everyone laughed.”
Words like breathe, breath, inhale, exhale, etc. are words frequently relied on by authors to show an internal character emotion. I know for myself that I relied far too heavily on “let out a breath I didn't know I was holding” in my early books.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can get overly repetitive. Instead, change it up by finding another way to show what caused that character to breathe differently.
Example: instead of “David rushed around the corner and I inhaled sharply,” use, “David rushed around the corner, a manic look in his eye, and my body tensed.”
Shrug, Nod, Smile, Reach
These are common words used by authors over and over again. While this doesn't make them bad, you want to make sure there isn't a more accurate and specific way of describing the situation.
Sometimes, a smile is just a smile, and you don't need a more specific word or phrase, but sometimes you've used it too often, and you need a better way of saying it.
Example: instead of, “He reached for the hammer,” use, “He lunged for the hammer.”
Really and Very are heavily used in writing but are almost always inferior. In almost every situation, there is a stronger adjective that will describe the situation more accurately (the exception, of course, is when a character might use them in dialogue).
Example: instead of, “the giant was very big,” use, “the giant towered over me.”
Just is a word, similar to “very” or “really” that can be easily deleted. It is unnecessary in most situations, and often doesn't even need a replacement.
Example: instead of, “he just wants to be loved,” say, “he wants to be loved.”
“That” is a necessary word, but is often overused. There are many instances when you can remove the word and maintain the meaning of the phrase.
Example: instead of “Dave told Jason that that explosion was deliberate,” say, “Dave told Jason the explosion was deliberate.”
Overused -ly Adverbs
Adverbs should be reduced in general, but there are some that are overused more, including: totally, completely, absolutely, literally, definitely, certainly, probably, actually, basically, virtually.
All of these words add nothing to the sentence, and you can usually remove them. An action word makes a better replacement.
Example: instead of “the drawer was completely full of socks,” say, “the drawer was full of socks.”
“Thing” and “It” are vague words that don't accurately describe what you're talking about. When possible, replace these words with a more specific word to describe the object you are referring to.
The exception for “it” occurs when you have already used the object's name in a sentence, in which case you can use “it” as the correct pronoun going forward.
Example: Instead of, “Bring me that thing,” say, “Bring me that book/smartphone/food/etc.”
Words like start, begin, began, and begun are often unnecessary, as you can just describe the action instead, with the “starting” of that action already implied.
Example: instead of, “she began to run,” say, “she ran”.
“There was” is a common way to start a sentence, and can be easily replaced by a more descriptive action.
Example: instead of, “there was a cat scratching at the door,” say, “a cat scratched at the door.”
“Up” and “down” are often unnecessary words, since the direction is usually implied by other words in the sentence. Analyze whether you need these words, and delete if necessary.
Example: instead of, “she sat down on the carpet,” say, “she sat on the carpet.”
“Have got” is a tautology, meaning that both words mean the same thing. Instead, you can just use “have”.
Additionally, “got” is not a useful word overall, and you can usually find a better word to use instead.
Example: instead of, “she got to her feet,” say, “she leapt to her feet.”
“Literally” is a word that is often used out of context, in a situation where it is not meant to be taken…literally. Make sure that when you use this word, that it means what it says.
There are exceptions, like when a character is supposed to talk that way, but generally you should avoid it.
Example: instead of “The sun was so hot, John was literally melting,” you can remove the word “literally” or replace it with a word like “practically”.
“About” is a vague word that doesn't specify anything. You can use words like “approximately” or provide a more specific range instead.
Example: instead of “the wall was about 10 feet high,” say, “the wall was between 10 and 12 feet high.”
There are a lot of filler words and phrases that can be entirely cut from your manuscript. These words and phrases include:
- Each and every
- As yet
- As of yet
- In order to
- At the end of the day
- As a matter of fact
- For all intents and purposes
- For the most part
- With regard to
- In reference to
- Needless to say
- It is important to note that
- During the course of
- When it comes to
- Due to the fact
All of these phrases are empty, add no new meaning to the sentence, and should be avoided.
Example: instead of, “At the end of the day, it is important to note that, as of yet, we have not found a cure for the common cold,” say, “We have not yet found a cure for the common cold.”
Sort of, Kind of
These two phrases are used often in spoken language, but are unnecessary in writing. They are empty phrases that mean nothing and you can easily eliminate them.
The meaning can shift slightly when you eliminate it, so make sure that there isn’t a better way to say it, or that it means what you want it to say.
Example: Instead of “The meeting progressed kind of on schedule,” say, “The meeting progressed on schedule.”
How to Cut These Words From Your Book
The best tool to cut an unnecessary word from your creative writing is a standard Find and Replace feature. While you can access this in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and others, I’m going to be using Atticus, which uses a special system built specifically for writers.
In Atticus, you can access the Find and Replace feature by selecting the More Tools button on the top right, then selecting the icon that looks like a magnifying glass.
Then, you have a number of options.
- You can select whether to search through a single chapter or the whole book
- Input the word you are searching for into the Find section
- You can select whether to match the whole word or match the case
- Scroll through the Previous and Next copy of that word
- Input the word you want to replace (if needed)
Once you have inputted your word into the “Find” field, you can then see how many times that word appears in each chapter, as shown in the chapter menu.
Simply Find and Replace, or Find and go through them one by one to ensure the change is what you want.
If the Find and Replace feature isn’t enough, you can use a program like ProWritingAid (which also integrates with Atticus).
ProWritingAid is better than Find and Replace for some types of word searches, such as overused words that you might not know you are overusing, or cases of passive voice and filler phrases.
Those who purchase the lifetime version of ProWritingAid through our link get a 20% off coupon! That’s a huge savings for the lifetime package, which provides incredible savings on its own.
ProWritingAid is (by far) our top pick for authors. It’s great for long-form writing, academic writing, or a blog post, and has more reports than any other grammar checker.
So take these tools and writing advice and use them to improve your academic paper, short story, or novel.