The next in my series of advice about writing advice deals with unnecessary words. This is one I’ve seen a lot – people are always eager to share their lists of words that they seek and destroy in their writing. The lists vary from person to person, but they often include “that”, “very”, “then”, “next”, “just”, and “suddenly”. “Find them and kill them with fire!” they say.
This advice comes from a very reasonable place. “That” for example, when used as a conjunction – for example, “She knew that she should be cleaning the kitchen instead of blogging” – can often be removed from a sentence without affecting the meaning in the slightest. (Note, though, that there are many other ways of using “that”, and you can’t just go round removing those willy-nilly. That would leave you with nonsense. You can see that.) Similarly, you very often don’t need “then” or “next” to indicate the order of a series of events – readers will generally assume they happen in the order they appear unless told otherwise. “Suddenly” often gets paired with things that are by their nature sudden: “Suddenly, there was a bolt of lightning” – as opposed to those other types of bolts of lightning that amble along casually. “Very” can make for clunky sentences, and if you need to emphasise an adjective, you can often find a better adjective that will do the job (this means, if we’re going to be pedantic about it, the word is not so much redundant as pointing to a different problem). Sometimes taking out redundant words is an easy way of tightening up your writing.
But “redundancy”, especially in fiction, is a curious thing. It’s true, you might not need a word to help convey a sentence’s meaning. But rhythm is a very (I don’t need this “very”, but I like it for rhythm and emphasis) important part of writing. In good prose, how it feels can be just (you’re not taking that “just” away from me either) as important as what it means. Character voice is also something to consider – maybe your character is the type to never use one word when seventeen will do, in which case you don’t want to tighten up their sentences. Maybe your character is a small child telling their long-suffering mother about their day. If you want to authentically capture that voice, you’ll want to put in a lot of “and thens”. Trust me.
It’s almost impossible to do examples with our questions for this bit of advice, because things like rhythm and voice are so hard to pin down, and entirely depend on the surrounding words and sentences. But it’s important to bear them in mind when you’re editing your work (or someone else’s) and looking for those “unnecessary” words, particularly the last two:
- What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence?
- Is that the effect I want?
Words that don’t add meaning sometimes help guide the reader through a complex sentence or paragraph, or slow down a sentence that could otherwise feel too brisk, or add emphasis, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to cull them mercilessly. If you feel your word count is bloated, by all means do a search for some of those words and consider if they’re needed, but, as the song they taught us at primary school almost went, “Stop, look and listen, before you press delete.”
And now I’ve earwormed myself. Dagnammit.