47 words and phrases that slow your reader down

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Packed car trunk

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Your neighborhood is about to be blown up by alien invaders. You have 24 hours to pack your car and get out of the city. What do you bring?

You have to choose the most essential, useful, meaningful items that you can possibly fit in a limited space. You have plenty of time to choose, but – still. You might seriously regret taking the gun instead of the pitchfork two months from now when you’ve run out of bullets and discover you have to grow your own food.

Sometimes the things that seem essential are really just taking up space. 

That’s what it’s like to write a novel.

It’s also one last tip in how to write a page-turner.

Cut the fluff.


The second A in AIDA

Fluff drags the writing. It’s clutter. Every unnecessary word makes a sentence harder to understand. The brain must sort through what’s important and what’s not, sometimes going over a sentence three or four times to make sure it read it right. More work for your readers’ weary eyes and minds. And yet another reason to stop reading.

“But I don’t have any fluff,” you might say, “Everything I say is relevant,” you might insist.

Are you sure about that?

Here are 19 examples of pointlessly wordy expressions from Strunk & White’s Rule no. 17:

  • The question as to whether (instead, say: whether)
  • There is no doubt but that (no doubt/doubtless)
  • Used for fuel purposes (used for fuel)
  • He is a man who (he)
  • In a hasty manner (hastily)
  • This is a subject that (this subject)
  • His story is a strange one. (His story is strange.)
  • The reason why is that (because)

 “the fact that” is never necessary:

  • Owing to the fact that (since / because)
  • In spite of the fact that (though / although)
  • Call your attention to the fact that (remind you / notify you)
  • I was unaware of the fact that ( I was unaware that / did not know)
  • The fact that he had not succeeded (his failure)
  • The fact that I had arrived (my arrival)

Case, character and nature are  rarely necessary:

  • In many cases, the rooms were poorly ventilated (Many of the rooms were poorly ventilated)
  • It has rarely been the case that any mistake has been made (Few mistakes have been made)
  • Acts of a hostile character/nature (Hostile acts)

Who is, which was, etc. are rarely necessary:

  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm (His brother, a member of the same firm)
  • Trafalgar, which was Nelson’s last battler (Trafalgar, Nelson’s last battle)


In On Writing Well, William Zinsser has plenty to say about clutter.

It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough….A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.

He points out “[clutter] slows the reader and makes the writer seem pretentious.”

Here are 24 examples:

  • Assistance ( Help)
  • Numerous (Many)
  • Facilitate (Ease)
  • Individual (Man or woman)
  • Remainder (Rest)
  • Initial (First)
  • Implement (Do)
  • Sufficient (Enough)
  • Attempt (Try)
  • Referred to as (Called)
  • With the possible exception of (Except)
  • He totally lacked the ability to (He couldn’t)
  • Until such time as (Until)
  • For the purpose of (For)

Currently, at the present time, and at this point in time can all be replaced with now or today.

Cut fluff phrases like:

  • I might add
  • It should be pointed out
  • It is interesting to note

And phrases that indicate self-doubt (thereby and weakening the tone), like:

  • A bit
  • Sort of
  • I’m tempted to say
  • In a sense

 

I’ll add a few of my own:

  • Very [usually superfluous: very loud, very tall]
  • That [can often be cut: he thought that she was pretty vs. he thought she was pretty]
  • In order to (To)
  • Help to (Help)

Will Your voice may demand that you break some of these rules? Possibly. But only some. I challenge you to commit to cutting 500 words from out of your first chapter.* Take a word count, write it on a sticky note, stick it to your monitor and start cutting. You don’t have to cut whole paragraphs. You may not even have to cut whole sentences. Just a phrase here or there. Change from passive voice to active to save a word or two. Get clever. When you’ve cut reached your 500 mark, go back and reread the chapter. See just how much sharper the writing is.

* This is assuming Only if you’re in the final editing stages. If you’re still fixing plot problems, don’t worry about line editing yet.

NOTE: The actual edits in this post are examples, not rules. For voice, it might have been wise to leave some of the phrasing as it was.  But none of the cuts confused the meaning – good to know if you’re ever up against a word limit.

-

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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33 Comments

  1. Gotta love Messrs Strunk and White.

  2. Great post and by the way I’ve been reading a lot of C.S. Lewis lately…love his stuff. Thanks for the inspiration :)

  3. I enjoyed your examples throughout the post, showing the corrections. And yes, (oops) voice can change the rules, but this is great info to have. I saw my own fluff in many examples. Especially “that”. I know that, I see that you, etc. Thank you!

    • I was glad you added that final note, because, as you said, sometimes a slightly longer phrasing is need in narrative.

      Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of fluff many times, and your advice is excellent. I shall have to put greater effort into cutting out those unnecessary phrases. (Like Judee above me, I’m sure “that” slips in more often than it needs to!)

    • Thanks for reading! Glad it was useful. : )

  4. Great post! I struggle with fluff in my voice, especially my romances. I already try to remember many of these when I edit, but a reminder (and examples) are helpful. :)

    Thank you for the final note about not worrying about it while you’re still writing. That’s extremely assuring to remember. :D

    • Oh, yes. Nathan Bransford (author and former lit agent) has some great advice about doing all the big edits in your book (like plot fixes) first, and leaving the little edits (like these) till last, because otherwise you might spend hours trimming a word here and there out of a paragraph that you end up rewriting entirely for plot reasons anyway! I thought it was good advice, so I try to follow it. : )

  5. I fight fluff all the time, but I do love some of the more delicious English words, and it seems to me that they are often necessary to avoid another pitfall: repetition. The simplest words are often the right choice, but it is good to have a wide vocabulary, especially if the reader can get the gist of a word they don’t know from context.

    • Oh! Oh! Thank you for making this point! Actually, if I think about it, having a great vocabulary will help you cut more words rather than tempt you to use too many. For instance, using the word “verdant” instead of the technically simpler “really green.” : P Cheesy example but you get my drift. It’s not the “simplest” word, but it is the better word.

      • exactly! I once spent about three weeks trying to remember the word “insular” because all my thesauri (is that the correct plural?) and family and friends were not able to help me nail it down… it’s funny how words can get lost.

  6. I’m trying to make myself a convert. Working on ridding my writing of unnecessary words and the hardest thing is not overusing “that.”

  7. Great article. I love “On Writing Well.” I think it can be easy to get carried away and forget that in any piece of writing every word counts and needs to serve a purpose. This was an excellent summary of some things to look for during the revision process.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

    • True! Yes, Zinsser has some excellent advice. I love all his real-life examples of clutter. Like “You are probably aware that we have been experiencing very considerable potentially explosive expressions of dissatisfaction on issues only partially related.”
      Of course, those types of textual horrors are usually only in nonfiction – I see it all the time at work! There are few things more satisfying than cleaning it up.

  8. Thanks. I needed that! Just like dieting, I need to be reminded, even though I know the rules.

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  10. I have problem with “to be” verbs. I’m obsessed with “was!” it pops up everywhere. Not sre how to get rid of it!

    • Hmmm. Are you using it mostly for description (he was a lawyer, she was pretty, it was a dark and stormy night), or for action (she was riding a bike, he was chopping onions, etc)? Or both? You can try sneaking descriptive terms into the action (the lawyer opened his briefcase, her pretty eyes scanned the room, the storm raged through the night) and action phrases can simple be rearranged (she pedaled up the rode on her red bicycle, his knife crunched through the onion). But don’t kill yourself trying to get rid of them all. Chances are, just weeding out a few will solve your problem. : )

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