Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, self-editing is a must to produce pristine manuscripts. Go on a search-and-delete mission to eradicate pet words, empty words, and echoes.
Pet words are overused words or phrases. Some common pet words are that, there is/are, I know, very, really, actually, and but. Ninety-nine percent of the time, pet words can be eliminated without changing the sentence’s meaning, tightening the prose. For example:
There are thousands of red cars on the road.
The college that you like costs too much money.
Rewritten without the pet words:
Thousands of red cars are on the road.
The college you like costs too much money.
The meanings aren’t altered, and removing there are changes passive structure to active.
Eliminating pet words can also help with word count. I edited a manuscript that was way over the acceptable word count. In the first two pages, I eliminated thirty pet and empty words (see below), or 6 percent. Six percent of a 100,000-word manuscript is 6,000 useless words—twenty-four pages!
To discover your pet words, start by using the examples I’ve listed. Open Find (Home tab) in Word, type that in the Navigation space. It will state how many times it’s been used. If that occurs several times on many pages, you’ve overused it; eliminate most of them. If the result says “too many uses to list,” it’s further proof of overused words.
Some words are uncommonly specific and stand out as descriptive. Don’t use them more than once or twice in a manuscript because they lose their uniqueness and become weakened by overuse. A Christy Award nominee’s pet word was discombobulation. How did I know? She used it three or four times. She should have used it only once because of its uniqueness. I read the book six years ago, and discombobulation is what I remember. Books should be remembered for their great stories or timely messages, not by their overused words.
Empty words take up space but don’t add meaning to the sentence. They also indicate weak writing. For example:
It is very important that I talk to you.
He was very late for work.
Active, precise words do a better job:
It is urgent that I talk to you.
He arrived an hour late to work.
The first sentence in the correction conveys a sense of urgency. The second tells us how late he arrived. And we eliminated passive voice.
Other common empty words are just, only (unless it indicates one), really . . . you get the idea. These intensifiers fail to express the degree of the verb/adjective they modify and leave readers questioning how much, how long, or to what degree.
Clear, concise writing takes work. Vivid and precise words are descriptive and show action.
Echoes are identical words used too close together. For example, if hurried is in the second paragraph of a page and then again in the fourth paragraph, the second use is an echo. The author must decide whether to use hurried in the second paragraph or in the fourth then change the duplicate use.
Be on the lookout in your writing for pet words, empty words, and echoes. Eliminating them produces concise, precise, and interesting writing.
Erin Brown, aka The Write Editor, is a full-time, professional freelance editor, proofreader, and writer. An avid reader (in and out of the office), she is a Christy Award judge and enjoys living in western Montana and spending time with her grandchildren and adult children. To learn more about Erin, view a selected client list, and read what editors and authors say about her work, visit her Website. The Write Editor . . . is the right editor!