Omittable Words

Earlier this year, I was having a chat with my very talented friend Dan Bensen about words that writers would do well to search for and eliminate as often as possible from their manuscripts. I asked if he had a working list, and he was kind enough not only to send me this very useful list, but also give me permission to share it with you. He’ll be talking more about it on his blog, so I’d strongly encourage you to pay attention to his blog/podcast for more interesting and thoughtful tidbits. My commentary is in brackets; note that this is my commentary on a list, not reflective of a conversation.


I’ve been thinking about that list of omittable words you asked about. How’s this? Can you think of any more?

Good writing (a)omits needless words (b)shows rather than tells (c)is transparent, allowing the reader to effortlessly absorb the events of the story without be distracted by language.

These rules only apply to narrative, not to dialogue.

[Narrative vs. dialogue is a HUGE distinction here. Creating voice forces you to throw these rules out the window almost entirely with some frequency.]

Somewhat, mildly, rather, pretty, kind of, sort of: Can usually be removed without (really) changing the meaning of the sentence.

Very, a little: Can usually be replaced by finding a punchier adjective. The laser was very hot. The laser could melt titanium.

[These two categories want similar fixes. He was mildy upset. He wasn’t furious, but the temperature dropped a few degrees when he turned to look at her.]

Is: Replacing be-verbs with action verbs usually improves writing. Also helps with showing vs. telling. He was stupid. He spent the next several minutes trying to push open a door marked “pull.” 

Removing “is” also helps you limit the use of the passive voice and the continuous aspect, both of which tend to push the reader out of the story. The soldiers were staring at me. The soldiers stared at me. The body was carried out of the room. The porters carried the body out of the room.

Adverbs: Adverbs signify a case of telling, rather than showing. “Leave,” he said angrily./ The stupid, spoiled, brat! Every minute in his company drove Bob that much closer to murder. “Leave,” he said.

[I had fun teaching the adverb point to my writing group by having them act out the same scene from different perspectives and describing one another’s body language.]

Italics and exclamation points: For the same reason readers skim over “say” they skim over italics and exclamation points too. Use sparingly and they will stand out more. Same goes for profanity.

Bookisms like sob slur choke shout when used instead of say. Say is such a common word that the reader usually isn’t conscious of it. That means “say” is a great way to attribute quotations without interfering with the flow of dialogue. If it is really important to focus on the emotions or tone of voice of a character, you can just as effectively show them with description. “Why?” sobbed Amber/ “Why?” Amber could no longer hold back her tears.

Begin, start. Almost always unnecessary. He started to run./He ran.

Then. If you write event after you wrote another, the reader assumes the first one happened first, and then the second one. Using the word “then” is almost always superfluous. The arrow hit her, and then she died./The arrow hit her and she died.

[This is also a peeve of mine in my copyediting work because no one knows how to use commas with “then.”]

Sense words like see, feel, notice, hear. If you’re writing close third person or first person, everything on the page is what the POV character experiences. Saying “She saw” or “he felt” only drags the reader out of the story. He saw a dinosaur behind the bilboard./A dinosaur lifted its head over the edge of the billboard.

[Similarly–think, believe in dialogue or first person. I believe you’re wrong. You’re wrong.]

Suddenly. Very easy to overuse as a way to raise tension.

It and this and that without a following noun. It’s easy for the reader to lose track of what this and it refer to.

Which was, who was, that was. Almost always omitable. The woman, who was his wife, said hello./ The woman, his wife, said hello.

[Omission of excess words that indicate weak writing is best paired with a strong command of punctuation. Perfect comma placement is worth at least two or three words, which adds up. ]

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Dan! All the rest of you–go buy his book and follow him on Twitter