Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing, Part II

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker 

 In Part I, I talked about revising your fiction to take out any words that aren’t needed, to strengthen what’s left and make your message more powerful and accessible.

Here are more tips for streamlining your writing.

1. Cut out qualifiers.

Start by cutting out qualifiers like very, quite, rather, somewhat, kind of, and sort of, which just dilute your message, weaken the imagery, and dissipate the tension.

Before: “I’m honestly quite surprised and a bit disappointed at her reaction, as I kind of thought we’d resolved that issue.”

After: “I’m surprised and disappointed at her reaction, as I thought we’d resolved that issue.”

Before: “She was rather worried about the situation, and it was making her very tense.”

After: “She was worried about the situation and it was making her tense.”

2. Take out the word “that” wherever it’s not needed. 
Read the sentence out loud, and if it still makes sense without the “that,” remove it. Smooths out the sentence – less clunky. 

Examples: He told me that he’d be here at five. => He told me he’d be here at five.

The dog that you gave me is growing fast. => The dog you gave me is growing fast.

Before: She said that you thought that it was too expensive and that you wanted to shop around. 

After: She said you thought it was too expensive and you wanted to shop around.

However, be sure to keep the “that” if it’s necessary for meaning, or if omitting it will cause even momentary confusion and force the reader to read the sentence again:

“He claimed the property was worth $2 million” could at first glance be read, “He claimed the property” (as in “for himself”), so better to say, “He claimed that the property was…”

Similarly, “They believed the prisoners should be punished” is clearer with “that”:
“They believed that the prisoners should be punished.” Otherwise a fast reader might first think of the meaning “They believed the prisoners.”

3. Cut way back on adjectives and adverbs.

Many or even most adjectives and adverbs are dispensable. Instead, use stronger nouns and verbs. Sol Stein recommends a bold approach: “The quickest way of increasing the pace of a manuscript and strengthening it at the same time is to remove all adjectives and adverbs, and then readmit the necessary few after careful testing.”

See how many –ly adverbs you can cut. Use a stronger verb instead. Rather than “He walked purposefully across the room,” say “He strode across the room.” Or how about, “She screamed loudly.” A scream is loud, so no need to add “loudly.” Same with “He hurriedly scribbled a note.” Scribbling implies writing quickly, so no need for the adverb. Same with “She whispered softly.” Or “He ran quickly.” Take out “quickly,” or even better, use a more descriptive verb: “He raced” or “He dashed.”

Then see how many adjectives you can cut. If you describe someone or something with three or four adjectives, can you cut out one or two, and just leave the strongest, most apt one or two? That way, what’s left will stand out more and have more power. 

Before: It was a beautiful, huge, historic Victorian mansion.

After: It was a beautiful Victorian mansion.

But don’t go to extremes and delete all adjectives and adverbs. Some adjectives and adverbs enhance rather than detracting. Here are some tips for deciding which adverbs and adjectives to cut, and which to keep (adapted from advice by Sol Stein).

Keep any adjectives and adverbs that:
· Supply necessary information for reader understanding.

· Help the reader visualize the precise image or feeling you want to project.

· Stimulate the reader’s curiosity and keep the story moving along, like “She had a haunted look.”

4. Take out dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc.) where it’s obvious who’s speaking. But don’t take them all out – that can be annoying if the reader is forced to check back four or five lines to see who’s talking now.

5. Take out all those little unnecessary words and prepositional phrases that clutter up your sentences.

Some before => after examples:

in the vicinity of => near

as a consequence of => because

for the simple reason that => because

owing to the fact that => because

a large percentage of => many

has the appearance of => looks like

engaged the services of => hired

with the exception of => except for

take into consideration => write “consider

Thomas spoke in a muffled fashion. => Thomas mumbled.

Some more examples of cutting unnecessary little words and streamlining your prose, from Jodie’s editing (modified and disguised):

Before: A moment passed before he remembered…

After: Then he remembered…

Before: He moved his mouse pointer over to the other email that he had received.

After: He clicked on the other email he had received.

Before: Jake pulled the jeep off by the side of the road near the path that led to the old cabin.

After: Jake pulled off near the path that led to the old cabin.

Before: Johnson paused a moment before replying as he slowed the car in preparation for a right-hand turn onto a smaller road, resuming the conversation as the car again picked up speed.

After: Johnson paused as he slowed the car to turn right onto a smaller road, then continued as the car picked up speed.

In Part III, we’ll talk about reducing repetitions in all their forms, as well as "RUE" (Resist the Urge to Explain), “info dumps,” and other strategies for cutting clutter and redundancies to empower your writing.

Robert W. Harris, When Good People Write Bad Sentences

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
Sol Stein, On Writing

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter


  1. I have a file of you excellent advice columns and I keep them handy for reviewing. This is another great one. Thanks!

  2. Another excellent post, Jodie.

    As an aside: I have an editor friend who grudgingly has let go of her belief that (using your example) it isn't necessary to specify Jake's jeep is what actually was pulled off the road.

  3. Man, I should have hired you last time. Now I know better :) Thanks for another terrific post Jodie!

  4. Weird! I commented on here an hour or so ago and it never showed up! The new blogger has me confused. (Blame them, not me, of course! :-) )

    Thanks, LJ, Peg and Tom for your comments - and compliments! Glad to be of help. I also need to heed my own advice. I find it's easier to find and ferret out excess wordiness in other people's writing than in my own. Too close to it, I guess. Something about "killing your darlings" but on a micro scale! LOL

  5. This is such good advice, Jodie. I'm guilty of doing this and usually have to go through several times to get all the clutter words out. I think that we sometimes write as we talk. Two completely different forms of communication. Of course, that's what our friendly editor is for--to help us see what we normally can't :)

  6. Thanks, Drew. Although for fiction, I think writing more or less how we talk is a good thing - makes the story world seem more real. It's more of a problem if a fiction writer writes too "perfect" I think, especially for dialogue, but even for narration, which is often/usually internal monologue,as the scene is filtered through the viewpoint character's perceptions and thoughts.

    But back to cutting the clutter - yes, it often takes someone with a little distance to see those extra little words and phrases that aren't adding anything and are actually detracting from the smooth flow of thoughts and imagery. I could use an editor for that myself sometimes!


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