Monday, August 5, 2013

Editing Tip: Words You Don't Need

Annette M. Irby
Hey everyone, Annette here. As an editor, I occasionally run into some unnecessary words and/or phrases in manuscripts. As an author, I've thrown some of these into my own manuscript. See if you can relate:

Have you ever had to write to a certain word count? Not just a goal, but an actual, set-in-stone number?

Say your publisher’s word count limit is 90,000 words. And say your manuscript rings in at 91,257. What can you do? The overage doesn’t warrant removal of an entire sub-plot thread. Your publisher won’t budge on the limit. And you're going to need that final half-chapter.

Here are some suggestions for non-essential words and phrases you might consider deleting:

That—oftentimes this word can be deleted without changing the meaning of your sentence.

In, as in “in between”—most of the time, you can delete “in.” Try saying the sentence without the “in.” If it works, leave “in” out.

On the—as in “she kissed him on the nose” or “he bussed him on the shoulder” Please delete “on the.” “She kissed his nose.” And “He bussed his shoulder.”

Couldn’t help but / Can't help but—this multi-word phrase is a word-limit saboteur. Ask yourself: Why did I use that phrase here? What do I actually mean? I think sometimes we use clich├ęs like this one out of laziness. Ask yourself: Does this truly fit this scenario? this character? More than likely, you can delete it.

Each and every one—this phrase is redundant. Choose one of these two options. “Each one” is sufficient.

Hit the Delete Button

Go through and do a search and replace on these phrases. You’ll hopefully save yourself some words, while tightening your writing.

Your turn. Have you ever faced the challenge of whittling down your word count? What are some unnecessary phrases or words you’ve deleted from your manuscript?


Annette M. Irby is a published author who runs her own editing business, AMI Editing. She is also an acquisitions editor for Pelican Book Group. See her page here on Seriously Write for more information.


  1. Chop, chop, chop! :-)

    Great list, Annette!

  2. "That" is the bane of my writing! I do a search for it after every chapter and delete 99% of them. Another one that always gets me is "outside of" or "inside of". Thanks for posting!

    1. Ooh, good point on the "inside/outside of," Tom. Thanks for adding that one to the list.

  3. Hi Annette, oh, I am sooooo guilty of the "couldn't help" thing. Thanks for the reminders.

    1. Hi, Tanya! I think because we read that phrase in so many published novels, we don't always flag it in our own. Same's true for a slew of other phrases and/or words that have lost their meaning. But where it may have originally had meaning, like with all cliches, the original intention has faded. As writers, we get to analyze what readers don't always question. And our writing is better for it. :) Write on, Tanya!

  4. The word buss is an alternative word for kiss

  5. Great post!

    One of the best exercises I've ever done came from a writing class at the Montrose (PA) Christian Writer's Conference. The lady running the week-long class had us take the pages we intended to read the next day and cut three words- from each sentence.

    There was shock, grumbling, and outright laughter, but... we did it. And holy cow, did that exercise force us to tighten our writing!

    Of course, the idea wasn't to actually cut 3 words (and only 3 words) from each sentence, but to examine our writing and see which words had earned their right to be there. It was eye-opening to say the least!

  6. Scrivener has a great feature in that you can check out how many times you use a word.

  7. My problem is using a pronoun and a to-be verb when a contraction works better. I always read through out loud and catch lots of them. It cuts the word count down nicely.


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