As a freelance editor, I’ve become quite used to spotting redundant words and repetition in a writer’s work. I’ve noticed many of the words and phrases writers use excessively. The thing is, it’s not always so easy to spot this in your own writing (believe me, I don’t spot them in my own!). We’re often blind to these things in our own work because we’re so close to it, so it can be useful to have some guidance on what to look out for, and which redundant words to cut from your writing.
These words or phrases don’t always have to be cut. And I’m not saying you can’t use them. Sometimes they might be effective, or just the word you need. But more often, they don’t add much to a narrative, and you can tighten your writing by removing them. If you have a habit of overwriting in particular, try stripping these redundancies out to reduce your word count.
Redundant words to cut from your writing
- Immediately/suddenly/at that moment – The reader will know that what’s happening is instant and unfolding in the now; there isn’t a need to remind them.
- Very/really – These words can be cut in favour of a stronger verb which is usually more effective. Instead of “very scared”, for example, try “terrified”.
- Then/and then – Often redundant, and can make writing feel stilted and amateurish.
- Just – If the sentence works without it, cut.
- Quite, rather, somewhat, almost, kind of – Saying that something is “quite delicious” or “kind of delicious” is not much different to saying it’s delicious. No need for the extra word!
- That – If the sentence works without it, delete.
- He/she saw, he/she heard, he/she felt and so on – If you’re writing through the eyes of a particular character, it’s a given that whatever you’re describing is what that character is seeing or feeling. For example, instead of saying, “She saw the cat sitting on the wall across the street”, you can say, “A cat was sitting on the wall across the street”. Instead of saying “She heard the band playing music in the garage”, try something more effective: “The music the band was playing in the garage boomed up the stairs”.
- Literally, totally, completely, absolutely – There’s no difference between “It was totally amazing” and “It was amazing”. They hold the same meaning, so the extra word is redundant filler.
- Started to/began to – There’s no need to say “She started to walk”. If a character is performing an action, obviously there will be a point when they start doing it – that’s a given! As with some of the other redundancies here, you can use a stronger verb instead – “She ambled” – or simply “She walked”.
- However, therefore – These aren’t usually needed. They can sound quite formal and stilted for fiction anyway; leave them for your essays and academic writing, unless you’re creating a particular character voice.
- All/all of – If it isn’t needed, cut it! For example, instead of writing “all of the apples were in the basket”, you can just write “the apples were in the basket”. Likewise, if you’re describing a group of people and you’ve written “all the guests”, you can pare it back to “the guests”.
Watch out for writing tics, too!
By a writing tic, I mean a phrase or descriptor you repeat in your work. You often don’t even notice! Each writer has one or two they fall into using excessively. Sometimes it’s because the writer feels they need to fill a gap and doesn’t know what else to write, so they default to something and it becomes overused. In other cases, it’s because they can’t think of another description.
Too many of these can become a problem, because if you’re using a description or phrase all the time, readers will notice and feel jarred.
These can be:
- Adverbs such as slowly, slightly, leisurely, etc. Writing “firmly gripped” is redundant because gripped implies firmness. Instead of saying “she leisurely strolled down the beach”, simply say “she strolled” – a stroll implies leisure.
- Eye-related descriptions. For example, characters constantly looking at one another, staring, glancing, gazing, seeing, studying, widening their eyes, blinking. I’m guilty of this one myself!
- Character actions such as nodding, head-shaking, shrugging, arm-folding. The constant “braid-tugging” in the Wheel of Time series is a famous example. It’s become something of a meme on the Internet because it was so noticeable to readers.
- Describing body parts where it’s obvious which part will be used. No need to say she touched it with her hands/he kicked it with his foot. We know which body part is being used if someone is touching or kicking.
I’m sure there are plenty of other redundant words to cut from your writing, and phrases and tics I’ve missed, but these are the ones I see regularly. Many of them will depend on the individual writer’s habits – they might have become over-reliant on adverbs, or not noticed their own tics. This is why good editors are so important; they can often spot what the writer can’t. But if you get to know your own habits and tics, there’s no reason you can’t strip these out during self-editing too. And the more you do it, the more you’ll build up the habit of spotting them.
Are there any other redundant words you often cut from your writing? What are your personal crutch words? Let me know in the comments!
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