Word search: the magic diet pill for novels

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 DailyWritingTips.com recently published a guest post I wrote called 3 Things the Novelist Can Learn from the Copywriter, roughly 1/3 of which was about brevity. Let’s expand on that!

Brevity is the soul of wit. The fewer the words, the harder they hit.

You’d be amazed how many unnecessary words are weighing down your manuscript, clogging up your sentences and tiring your readers. Fortunately, modern technology has given us an easy way to trim some of this grammar fat: word search!

How do you do a word search? In MS Word, click “Edit” then “Find…” and type in the word you are looking for. If you use a different program, try typing “word search” or “find and replace” into the “Help” search bar.

Got it? Here are eight examples of word calories you can cut:

1. Very

“Very” is a very evil word that sucks the power out of nearly every sentence it appears in. Just look at how very unnecessary “very” is in these sentences from a very old draft of my book:

It would very soon become the same for her.

She vaguely remembered seeing a very bright light coming at her.

He would have to decide very quickly how much he could tell her.

Very soon. Very bright. Very quickly. “Very” is overkill – modifying modifiers.

It would soon become the same for her.

She vaguely remembered seeing a bright light coming at her.

He would have to decide quickly how much he could tell her.

Do a word search in your novel or story for “very” and eliminate all that you can.

2. That

Not as bad as “very,” but still often unnecessary. Try eliminating this one as well.

3. By

“By” is a sign of passive voice, which should almost always be avoided which you should almost always avoid. (Except to preserve clarity or to break up a monotonously-active paragraph.) Search “by” and reword all you can.

      Passive: The ball was thrown over the fence by Billy.

      Active: Billy threw the ball over the fence.

4. –ly

Never use an adverb when the right verb works fine on its own. “Very” is just one example; most adverbs end in “ly.” Do a word search for “ly” and pay special attention to phrases like “walked quickly.” Search thesaurus.com for the root verb, “walk.” Keep clicking words within your results to find the right one. “Trotted” is descriptive enough to replace “walked quickly” – it sounds better, too.

5. In order to

Almost always cut “in order.”

6. The fact that

Depending on the context:

            “Owing/due to the fact that” – replace with “since” or “because”

            “In spite of the fact that” – replace with “though” or “although”

7. The question as to whether

Cut “the question as to”

8. The reason why is that

Replace with “because”

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White gives additional word-trimming advice (rule #17, p. 23-24). This book is the writer’s bible. If you don’t already own it, read it free here.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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16 Comments

  1. Fantastic! I have come across most of these before and there are a couple of new ones. Great refresher though.

  2. Excellent tips to live by in all forms of writing, from novels to e-mails! Superfluous words are for speaking, to help your speech flow, compensate for the tiny (or huge) amount of stress in speaking to other people, or to buy you time. You think?

    I hate “owing to the fact that” as much as “utilize”!

    • Yeah, you know, like to avoid saying “um” and “uh” and stuff. Haha.
      Seriously, though, you’re right, and I never really thought of that. It’s a lingual coping mechanism we use to give us time to think before we speak. Great thought!

  3. wow, this helps, a-lot. so i posted a revised chap 1, enjoy.

  4. I rediscovered a tool that can also be used to trim, or at least to indicate what words I use too often.

    http://www.wordle.net/

    1. Copy a chunk of manuscript.
    2. Paste it into Wordle
    3. Hit “Go”
    4. Get hit in the face by huge scary words!

    Fun, right?

    • Yes!!! My characters’ names take up the most space, but “eyes” is up there. I think I describe people gazing at other people too often. : P

      • Yeah, “eyes” is one of my big ones too. It’s hard when so much human communicating is done with eyes!
        “Like” is also big for me. I’ve had a regrettable addiction to similes for some time, but it is slightly bigger, even, than a couple of the main characters’ names! This… is obviously a problem. I do not look forward to the simile slaughter that must now follow. Perhaps I should print them out and have a funeral pyre. Fire always makes me feel better. …which may, in turn, be the reason “fire” is a rather large word in my cloud. Hmm.

        • I highly recommend the therapeutic burning of stuff. My siblings and I used to burn our homework every year when school got out (the “Homework Barbecue”). Now we’re out of school so we burn other people’s homework. : )

  5. I used to do that all the time! Now that I am out of school I burn other things (and I did that when I was in school too) but occasionally when I am working through something in my life I will write it down and burn it, either as a purge, or as a symbolic way to offer it to God rather than trying to fix it myself. It is highly therapeutic. Fire, so long as it isn’t trying to kill anyone, is highly therapeutic to me in general. I often get lost staring into the flames. Mmm… I am glad to be going camping this weekend. Fire time!

  6. Pingback: How to edit your novel: 5 more practical tips that really work « BeKindRewrite

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