editing / words / writers tips

13 Ways to Exorcise Wordiness

Twitter may be extreme–140 characters to communicate an entire thought–but the intent is right: Make your writing pithy. Fill each sentence with context. Make every word count. Fluff is boring. It slows the pace of the story, story’s pace, puts your reader to sleep, and is a fundamental reason why people stop reading your book. Forever. Instead of inspiring them to lose themselves in your tale, they put it down and never miss it.

Writers too often get caught up in their own prose, believing flowery spotlights their burgeoning writerly skills. On the contrary. The collection of words may be beautiful, but are they effective? That’s why people read their novel aloud. It sounds completely different to the ear than the mind. Does it still flow when you hear it or are the sentences stilted and forced, or wandering? Be brutal. Change the phrasing until it sounds right.

Here are some of the most effective wordiness fixes you can make:

  1. Don’t use ‘very’. It’s a cardboard hammer: looks good on paper, but fails in the harsh glare of reality.
  2. Limit prepositional phrases. Readers get lost in the maze of phrases starting with ‘in’, ‘from’, ‘after’–those words that you think add colorful detail and readers see as distracting. If those details are so important, give them their own sentence  or show them in situ.
  3. Limit adjectives and adverbs to max two per noun/verb. In writing creativity and sloth can look a lot alike to the newbie writer. Let me help you with that: Creativity is using the right nouns and verbs in the right place. Sloth is expecting adjectives and adverbs to do the heavy lifting.
  4. Skip meaningless phrases like ‘given the fact that’. They bury your lead. Just tell us the facts.
  5. Eliminate ‘which’ and ‘that’. How often is ‘that’ necessary to get an idea across? Take it out, see if your idea comes across. Usually, it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot.
  6. Use active instead of passive words. Using ‘are’, ‘is’, and their ilk requires additional explanation to communicate the action of your scene your scene’s action.  Can you turn it around? Change ‘She was energized and started to clean her house with renewed vigor.’ to ‘Energized, she vigorously cleaned her house.’
  7. For that matter, ‘started’ (as in the example above) is rarely required. We don’t need to know when something started AND that it’s occurring. The latter is sufficient.
  8. Don’t confuse quantity with quality. Your reader won’t. You want support? Buy a bra. Don’t get it by bolstering your word count.
  9. Don’t repeat yourself. It’s tempting to say the same thing a few different ways, just in case the reader didn’t get it. Don’t. Trust your reader or fix your prose. Or do both.
  10. Negatives are wordy; positives put the reader in a better frame of mind for your story.
  11. Don’t mitigate your argument with words like ‘mostly’, ‘kind of’, ‘is possible’. Be strong, aggressive, sure of yourself. Believe in yourself and your readers will also. When you really want to slap someone with the truth, do it. Apologize later if you must, but lay your soul out there for all to see.
  12. Metaphors and similes are clarifiers. Cliches are filler. The former are the WD 40 of your story arc. The latter are sinkholes the reader tries to skip over.
  13. Get rid of non-essential information, even if it’s interesting. It slows the story pace. Or grinds it to a halt. Tom Clancy and James Michener can get away with it. Most of us can’t.

That’s it. Now go write!

PS–I marked some of my edits so you could see how it changed this article. Better, don’t you think?

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, creator of two technology training books for middle school and six ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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55 thoughts on “13 Ways to Exorcise Wordiness

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  4. God bless you Anna for your lifeline. I haven’t met you and probably will never do but to me you’re an angel [but mere mortals do never meet an angel!]. I’m suffering from intense writing pain as to where my writing is going. And your lifeline will save me from lingering pain. Thank you. Arun


  5. Yes, it does help. I think I got the basic idea. Thank you. As you say, it’s kinda hard for anyone to give any concrete advice without knowing the full context of the story. Is there anyone I can approach to share my draft [over 2,000 words] – even at a cost- for advice on grammar and sentence construction? I’m a novice in this business. What’s the protocol in such a situation? Thank you again for your help. Arun


      • Hi Anna

        Not sure how to thank you! I’m simply gob-smacked in gratitude for your generosity you’ve shown to an old novice writer who never had the chance to attended an English-medium school. Even my University professors don’t have the time to edit/advise my story the way to you have done. You’re just like the nine year old jangli [a rusty fairy from jungle] character in my story who climbs tall trees to feed the orphaned mayna bird chicks skipping her lessons [which has got its consequences]. So, as they say, ‘less is more’ I will simply say, thank you and god bless you. Arun


  6. My query was aimed at both Jacqui and Anna and I’m lucky to hear from you both.
    Thank you Anna and Jacqui – thank you so much for your insight and light on my confusion and dilemma [you may or may not appreciate it- how much this means to me who is desperately trying to hold onto any floating piece of straw in a swirling river of confusion]. So thank you again.

    I’m still not 100% clear whether I should try to write a fictionalised-memoir or simply write it as a novel in 3rd person pov. Any advice? If it’s a fictionalised memoir – should it still be in 1st person pov And in Present Tense? Arun


    • I do know how much it means to get thoughtful feedback, so you’re welcome, Arun. As to your decision to go with a novel style or stay with the memoir style, I would say to go with what you are most comfortable with. My blog novel (utterly fiction) is something of a memoir. Each chapter is an incident and written in first person. Most all my other work is third person but real close to the main (I forget the term), it allows me some leeway with the storytelling.


      • You’re absolutely right Anna, talking to people like yourself and getting real feedback makes a huge difference to a novice writer like me. Thank you again.

        May I take another query with you/Jacqui and others re writing a memoir type novel [i.e. a novel based on memories]. Memoir, as you say, is better written in 1st person POV and in present tense format so that the reader can feel it’s happening here and now. Due to my lack of English grammar knowledge I find it hard to express past events in the present tense e.g. can I say : “The old religious teacher was the most powerful man in my town. He advises or advised the town dwellers……etc. i.e the first sentence in the past tense and following sentences in the paragraph in the present tense. That doesn’t sound very good to me. Any advice on this issue, if possible with some examples please. Arun


        • If you are expressing a memory, you might say, “The old religious teacher used to be the most powerful man in my town. He would advise the town dwellers…” Or if this is the way he is now, “The old religious teacher is the most powerful man in town. He advises the dwellers…” It’s kinda hard not knowing the rest of the context. Hope that helps.


  7. I’ve been one of those who has hit that share tab from time to time. For those who have asked me to critique their work, few though they are, I too have offered the most honest pointers I know. I just can’t get anyone to return the favor. Complicated indeed


    • It’s a complicated world there indeed, Anna. Only a dedicated/serious small group of like-minded people can make it work. We have a group of seven close ‘friends’ [not ever met face-to-face, funny world!] who always gives/receives critiques from each other – no hancky pancky business about hitting the share buttons etc. We just learn so much from each other I’m just an old learner as I have been learning [luckily] from this blog. I’m an old learner and would be happy exchanging writing pieces/critiques etc if you wish.Arun


      • Thanks so much, arundebnath. I’ll certainly have to keep you in mind. Anymore my biggest concern is the beginnings. I tend to put a lot of backstory in – part of my getting to know my character. I’m good as soon as the story lays hold and gets me rolling. What I’ve been searching for, for years now, is a beta reader. Another brain looking at my work before it goes into the machine of publishing, is invaluable.


      • I used to participate in a contest where writers gained points for reviews, and for every point they gained their own story was available for someone else to review it. Tit for tat so to speak. I learned a lot there from the different bits of advice, and have taken the lessons to heart. It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to go there. YouWriteOn.com if you’re interested in taking a look.


      • 1. Would you be kind enough to do this favour to me – to do a critique on my story?

        2. I am a bit confused about the best possible POV to use in writing a fictionalised memoir. First person POV possibly gives a more powerful/believable voice but how can a nine year old convincingly tell the social and religious intricacies and injustices endured by the character/narrator? I’ve recently read Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton where he has used 3rd person POV quite successfully. But he didn’t talk much about his early childhood and especially he didn’t suffer from any social and religious injustices. I am puzzled as to who best can tell the nine year old’s complicated childhood [born and brought up in a backward but beautiful tropical country surrounded by uneducated male religious oppressors and forced to flee her birth place with a moment’s notice for an uncertain future in a foreign country]? Oh, why, why people torture themselves to become writers – there isn’t much money or fame any more in a writing career!


        • I’m not sure who you’re asking, but I’ll take a stab at answering. Nine year old’s are pretty darn smart. Don’t belittle their reasoning power. She’s had a minimum of three years to assimilate all manner of input from whatever her sources are. Her mother? Other family discussions? Sometimes kids are forced to ‘grow up’ far sooner than we would like, but consider, in some cultures, she would be considered old enough to marry in two or three years. Don’t be afraid to treat her as an adult even at nine. As for POV? For a memoir, I think first person is best. You can show her thinking and reasoning to it’s fullest.


      • Anna makes great points. I’m not sure I can add anything. I will say that memoirs deal with these POV issues all the time. Readers of that genre expect a slight confusion and maturing as the story develops. I don’t think I’d worry too much about it.


      • Ideally they work just like a face-to-face group works where writers trade work in order to help each other. However, I have yet been able to make my FB group work like that. So far, member have merely left links to their latest whatever be it book, website or blog such as this one. I’m always looking for good blogs with writing tips to add to the group. It’s my hope that other writers will benefit from the advice. I don’t know how successful it is but I try.


      • Interesting. I have the ‘share’ tab above and lots of people have shared their work, asking for critiques, but few readers make suggestions. I do, but that only takes things so far.

        Complicated, this critiquing stuff.


  8. Hi Jacqui
    I’m new to your web world and bit of a novice surfer and an old man. I am doing an online Creative Writing course with one of Britain’s well-respected Universities. We have a Discussion Board where all learners make comments on each other’s views/ideas etc. – only the tutor interjects and participates with new vision and learning issues. We learn so much from each other and enjoy it too. To a limited extent commentators on your web pages are doing the similar things.

    With your knowledge, skill and interest in writing ideas I wonder whether you can set up a discussion forum or something similar where participants can learn from each other’s views/ideas etc. I have learnt so much in such a short period of time [too many flowery words?] from you and I love your writing. Thank you.


  9. Excellent article. Much to consider. I excised almost 2000 words from Tree House just by deleting useless words. You made me laugh and think, but I’m not giving up my chocolate teapot, even for you. BTW, I love many of the new graphics.


    • Thanks, Shari. I spent way too long replacing graphics and many times, just deleted. Thanks for noticing. I’ve learned my lesson. It’s amazing how many people find a website by its graphics. I knew that, but… didn’t really get it until I changed them all.

      Good job with the Tree House exorcising! I think literary fiction has more flexibility with wordiness than thrillers. I must be concise, fast, moving forward, no wasted time.


  10. In ancient India [during the period of Hindu epic Ramayana] very young boys or disciples used to go to guru’s house for their education. The disciples did all the household chores including gathering food and fuel from the jungle fighting off wild animals and demons. The disciples became kings or life savers of others. Like the guru you’ve given us life skills in writing. I for one [were these two words necessary?] will save many embarrassing armed with your teaching. Thank you.


          • Because the first time she speaks like this I point it out to the reader (i.e. someone else says “It’s anything, not anythink!”and also one of the other characters comments (as a thought) that the way she she says ‘yous’ instead of ‘you’ is annoying. After that she can speak like this as much as she likes throughout the story and the reader always knows it is her who is talking.


      • Interesting. I like unusual characters, too. Those quirky traits make them easy to remember and I identify with their outside-the-box actions. Thanks for the reminder. I need to refocus on that approach.


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