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

Synposis – Autumn’s Daughter

I’m working on sending out proposals for my book to agents, and I’ve run into something I should have expected but didn’t: many of them want a synopsis.


Since the point of a synopsis is to demonstrate your skill as a storyteller while communicating the broad strokes of the plot, I drafted out a synopsis as if Niamh (my main character) were writing a letter to the publisher herself, which seems like a clean way to demonstrate the voice of the book. I think it’s a non-standard approach, but then, as it’s been pointed out, so is the tense structure of my book.

I think that’s a good thing?

Anyway, the synopsis contains massive spoilers both for Autumn’s Daughter and the sequels, but if anyone either doesn’t care or has already read a version, I’d love feedback on the synopsis…

Autumn’s Daughter Synopsis

Spoiler Alert

If you are one of the 2.3 people on the planet who doesn’t know the plot of Les Miserables and still hopes to enjoy either the book or movie or a stage production of the musical…don’t read this post.

Les Mis has been in my mind the past few weeks, and if you don’t know why, then this post will probably not be of much interest to you. It’s a story that’s resonated with me for a long time, but what I’ve cared about has changed significantly over the years. The first time I heard the musical I was in seventh grade, and I loved it. I went out and bought a copy of the book…which I failed to read until a friend loaned me an abridged version that got me through the basic plot and gave me a renewed interest in reading the book as a whole, which I last read sometime in high school. What I loved about the story back then was the love story between Marius and Cosette.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to see my high school’s production of the musical (which was amazingly well done) some years after I had graduated and realized that the love story I had cherished as a middle schooler was actually pretty insipid. The relationship between Marius and Cosette is, in the musical (and possibly the book, though I have to reread it before I would assert this with confidence) is the flattest and most ridiculously stupid relationship in the entire book and it feels like an authorial cop out that they get a happy ending when all the people with moral depth die.

Spoiler: Everybody dies.

I think I’ve finally gotten old enough and well-versed enough in storytelling to truly appreciate the central relationship of the story: that of Valjean and Javert. The reformed convict and the convicted reformer, one the spirit and the other the letter of justice. And in this round of ponderings, my mind has been wrestling the the suicide of Javert.

Oh, yeah. Spoiler: Javert kills himself.

Javert’s suicide has always bothered me a bit. He spends half his life pursuing Valjean for skipping parole. On a few occasions, they meet. At one point, Valjean definitively has the upper hand and has the chance to kill Javert, but he chooses instead to set his pursuer free. When next they meet, Valjean is trying to save the life of the boy his adopted daughter has fallen in love with, carrying his badly wounded body through the sewers to safety. Javert confronts Valjean with the intent of capturing him again, but instead chooses to let him go. This act of mercy on his own part is so contrary to everything he has lived and believed that he kills himself.

I have always thought, from a modern and human perspective, that Javert’s death was unnecessary and even cowardly, though the more I grasp just how difficult change can be, the more I think that his death, particularly in a world with entirely different mores from my own, is not  entirely realistic. But even if it would be a waste of human life in reality, thinking about it in terms of literature and what the role literature plays, his death in the context of the story seems crucial. The death of Javert as a private individual isn’t the issue: what Hugo is killing off the the representation of a bad and broken Law. More importantly, he’s having the Law off itself because the Law holds the power and the friends of the ABC are on the wrong side of the power to impact change.

I’m sure that looking at Javert as a representation of an idea is no novel interpretation of the text, but it has got me thinking, as a writer, about this difference between what would be right for an action of a private individual in real life and what is right for the embodiment of a concept in a fictional life. Thoughts?

Dreams Half-Remembered

Dreaming and writing are strangely connected for me. I write  best in the mornings when I’ve woken up from a vivid dream, even if I’m not trying to capture the essence of the dream. I rarely try to capture the essence of a dream, actually. The emotion is so intense and surreal and personal that my efforts inevitably fail, but that moment when you mourn the realization that you don’t live in the dream world is very much what I hope to invoke in my readers.

I didn’t so much dream memorably last night as I do sometimes, but I went to sleep having just finished a fairly excellent post-apocalyptic sci fi. It left my mind dancing  with ideas and handed me a puzzle piece that I needed for my own post-apocalyptic novel…that piece that starts your mind singing and drives the writing forward. Until I find that piece, I always feel like I’m working uphill to build a mountain of dung. It’s the soul of the thing. No matter how carefully crafted a plot or how well-developed the characters, a story without soul isn’t worth reading…and I figured out what that missing soul piece was as I was drifting off contemplating the book I had just finished.

I woke up this morning, charged to get writing, which feels amazing after two or three weeks of feeling dead about the whole writing  thing because my brain has been utterly stressed out by the lack of a definitive answer about whether or not the bank is going to give us the mortgage on this house. (Reason number umpteen to avoid working for giant, asshat corporations: their salary verification processes for lenders suck.) We STILL don’t have an absolute, 100% “yes,” even though our loan officer is still saying we’re probably fine to close on Tuesday, so the stress is still there, but it’s like a breath of fresh air to find this soul-piece of a story to take  my mind elsewhere.

Anyway, I sat down at my computer to get to work and in the process of looking for the files for this story, which I haven’t touched in a while, I ended up going through a few old pieces I’ve either finished or started on. I came across one that took my breath away to leave me incredibly sad, not because it’s a staggering work of genius by any means, but because I got to the end and really wanted to know more. And I realized that I’m the only one who knows what’s supposed to happen next and I DON’T REMEMBER IT AT ALL. I don’t remember writing the beginning, and I don’t remember the general concept for the tale, so I’m left with this fairly intriguing beginning and no clear idea of what to do with it.

This is exactly what happens when you don’t keep on writing when you’ve got the soul of a project in your hand, so I’m going to chase after that story sprite and attempt to capture it before my mind wakes up all the way. And in the meantime, maybe I told someone about this story and maybe that someone reads my blog and remembers what the heck I was thinking about when I wrote this, so here’s the snippet that left  me wishing I remembered how it goes on…

A Shellhead’s Pearls (a working title I threw on there after reading it  this morning, so don’t think there are necessarily any clues in the title)


Don’t Write Like a Child, For Mercy’s Sake

I have a bone to pick with all you writers who are out there giving advice about writing like a child. Have any of you ever actually met any children? Do you have kids? Have you studied the way their minds work? Because the trite, surface-level advice that keeps popping up in the blogs I read is making me twitch.

Cultivate your inner innocence. Wonder at the world. Think about things with fresh eyes. Be honest. Stop editing yourself. Listen to the way kids talk. Sure, do all that…if you want your kids to sound like every other kid produced by working the problem from the wrong end.

If you want to grow up and write realistic kids, read about developmental psychology. Choose a mental age for your character (doesn’t have to match their physical age–conflict for kids can often stem from being either too precocious or a bit slow for their age), study up on what kids’ brains are doing at that age, and try to adopt those specific mental frameworks as you think about how your kids will address the challenges you’ve laid out for them.

Kids are wondrous strange creatures, it’s true, but it’s not because they’re magical. It’s because they don’t know anything yet and often don’t have the resources to learn things efficiently on their own. When you’re pre-literate, you can’t pop on the internet to google “how to tie shoelaces,” for example. You have to rely on other people, but even posing questions is a challenge because you don’t have the vocabulary to be specific or standard in your inquiries. If you want to immerse yourself in what it’s like to be a kid, find someone to teach you something completely new, preferably something with a highly technical use of vocabulary that you don’t know.

And as for the “kids are honest,” piece…that’s true. But it’s not a kind or morally-sainted honesty. Kids have an “I have underdeveloped social filters” honesty and it’s as often cruel as it is unintentionally sage or touching. If you want to get it right, try to image how you would respond to the situation, person, environment, etc. if you were the most socially inept person on earth and then tone it down as befits the mental age of your kid.

In general, I’m convinced that thinking about taking a child’s POV from a “writing like a kid” angle is not going to get you very far. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a kid’s POV. But kids are people. They’re people with specific ranges of mental and physical challenges that many adults don’t deal with on a daily basis, but they’re still people. If you lose sight of that fact, your writing will show it, and probably not for the better.