Have you ever been skimming through Pinterest and seen one of those charts that outlines the words you should ABSOLUTELY RIGHT NOW edit out of your manuscript?
I know you have, and if you haven’t, head on over to our Writing Resources We Love board on Pinterest to see some for yourself.
I mention these resources because I used one when I was reducing the word count of my middle grade novel. I’ve never really believed in a one-size-fits-all approach to writing (or much of anything else), so I approached the exercise and the charts with a healthy dose of skepticism. I was using them, but analyzing their usefulness at the same time.
In today’s post, I’m going to share what I learned by using two of the oft-suggested “edit-out” words–“maybe” and “suddenly.” By looking at how I edited these words, or didn’t edit them, out of my novel, I’ll show you why these charts are ultimately useful and how to use them correctly.
“Suddenly” is one of those words that you’re told to edit out of your document. In fact you’re often told not to write it at all.
But why is that? Isn’t “suddenly” a perfectly fine word? I had this question myself when I began editing my second or third manuscript. It was only after I completed editing these words out of my manuscript or picking and choosing when to edit it out and when to keep it that I finally understood why getting rid of words like “suddenly” is crucial for clear, concise prose.
The word itself is actually vague. It’s filler, and it could be replaced with stronger language, verbs, descriptors to achieve the same idea… but better. Here’s an example from my novel to show you what I mean.
…he was no longer sure what had happened that day in the room when evening shadows had suddenly become afternoon sunbeams and old, faded green wallpaper had become new and vibrant once more.
…he was no longer sure what had happened that day in the room when evening shadows had flickered into afternoon sunbeams and old, faded green wallpaper had exploded new and vibrant before his eyes.
If we compare the two versions, you see that I was able to replace “suddenly”–which I was using to mean in a sudden and unexpected manner–with “flickered” and “exploded.” These two verbs are much more active and show the reader how startling and shocking the experience was in a much clearer way than “suddenly” ever could.
Just based on this example, we see how useful the editing charts can be.
Caveat: Use Thoughtfully
As with everything, however, we shouldn’t follow advice blindly, not even advice handed down from on high by the writing gods.
THOU SHALT NOT USE WORDS LIKE SUDDENLY OR MAYBE!
Okay, writing gods, you’re mostly right. But I found while using this chart that I couldn’t just replace or delete every forbidden word. I had to be thoughtful about which ones to keep and which ones to edit out. In most cases, the unnecessary and forbidden words could be replaced to improve the text, like in my examples above. In other instances, the forbidden words actually helped create character through dialogue or establish tone and mood.
Take a look at these moments in my novel when I decided to keep the forbidden word “maybe”:
Stella opened her mouth to say that maybe she wanted to be a spinster.
The word “maybe” works here because it’s within the character’s thoughts. It reflects her insecurity. She’s not sure. And she’s a kid. Not subject to the laws of the writing gods, “maybe” would be part of her vocabulary.
Tone and Mood:
The evening light darkened to a deep blue. Stella felt it settle over the day and finally, finally, slow time down. Just a little bit. Maybe she could rest, just a bit. Maybe she could breath, just for a little while. The garden air smelled like pansies and made her feel dreamy and quiet.
Maybe time would stop and rest with her. Maybe the doctor was wrong, and they had a little bit of time left.
In this section, I was playing with the presentation of time through prose. In the sections previous to these two paragraphs, time was speeding up, it was out of control, but here I wanted to create a sense of time slowing down. The repetition of “maybe” helps with this. “Maybe” has a softness to it–no hard consonants here; even the “b” sound is softened by the “y.” I considered cutting the word from this passage, thinking there were better ways to create the tone and pace I was going for, but ultimately, I decided to keep it.
So, writers, find and use these very useful charts. I promise you’ll benefit from them. But don’t do so thoughtlessly. This is an opportunity to make sure you use every word wisely and purposefully. Take it!
What are you favorite editing resources and tools? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!