Some words and phrases automatically trigger an editor to stop and evaluate their usefulness, and some simply scream, “Remove me! Remove me!” Cutting dead weight can be the difference between a book that engages readers and keeps them up late reading and a book that has an appealing premise but lacks staying power.
At some point in your revision process, think like a line editor and evaluate the effectiveness of these trigger words.
Filter words increase the narrative distance between the reader and the viewpoint character, reminding us that what we’re reading is being told by someone rather than experienced, or shown, through the eyes of that viewpoint character. Examples include noticed, heard, saw, realized, felt, thought, wondered, knew.
Sometimes these words are necessary; other times, they distract the reader from the actions that are observable by the viewpoint character. Do you want the focus to be on what is happening in the story, or do you want the focus on the fact that the viewpoint character is observing it?
She heard him stomp up the stairs in his boots.
He stomped up the stairs in his boots.
When you see writing advice telling you to cut adverbs, it’s usually the manner adverbs that are the problem, particularly the ones that end in –ly and especially if they are attached to dialogue tags. Used purposefully and in moderation, adverbs and adverbial phrases can bring clarity. However, they can weigh down a sentence if they tell readers what’s already known from dialogue and are therefore redundant or if the existing verb is perfect as it stands and needs no modification.
Adverbs are also frequently a shortcut to telling readers how a character is feeling instead of showing that emotion and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said sternly.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said.
The dialogue doesn’t need the adverb. Usually, when it comes to dialogue tags, good dialogue doesn’t need an adverb, and if the dialogue needs help, an adverb won’t help it.
The key to keep in mind with adverbs is that they should modify—as in change. If an adverb is not changing the word it is modifying, if it is only intensifying, then it is likely unnecessary and can be cut. And it doesn’t hurt to try exchanging a verb-adverb pair for a stronger verb to see if you like the results.
She walked slowly into the store just as her shift started.
She shuffled into the store just as her shift started.
Characters who seem or appear to be doing or feeling something—probably, maybe, perhaps—convey an uncertain narrative. It can flatten tension and distance the reader from the viewpoint character. Tentative language often creeps in because an author doesn’t want to drop viewpoint, but it doesn’t solve the problem that really needs to be addressed—head-hopping.
He looked up when she slammed the door. She was probably mad about the canceled meeting.
He looked up when she slammed the door. She didn’t speak right away, just crossed her arms, breathing hard.
“I have no control over the client’s schedule,” he said.
Now we know she’s mad because of what the viewpoint character is observing, and we know what he is thinking because of what he says in response to her apparent anger. Solves the head-hopping problem as well as the tentative language, and shows rather than tells.
Of course, there are times when tentative language is exactly what’s required because the character is guessing or pondering.
When the order of characters’ movements is told with timeline nudges—words like before, then, after, suddenly, and when—there’s a risk that readers will focus on timeline rather than story. There are times when that emphasis is beneficial, and there are times when it is a distraction that can reduce engagement and dumb down the writing.
Readers are very good at tacitly interpreting the timeline of a series of actions with nothing more than the sentence organization itself and the appropriate use of commas and conjunctions.
Before putting the lid on his cup, he stirred cream and sugar into his coffee.
He stirred cream and sugar into his coffee and put the lid on his cup.
Intention to act
When an author tells us that a non-viewpoint character is doing something in order to do something else, or to do something else, that’s a viewpoint drop that pulls the reader away from the viewpoint character’s experience and impedes our investment in them. It’s a form of telling and sometimes a form of overwriting. Prose that focuses on observable and audible action, rather than intention, is more immersive. If the showing of the action or dialogue is done well, the reader will be able to interpret the intention.
In the case of viewpoint characters, sometimes telling the intention to act leaves them never actually carrying out the action. It’s always worth considering whether intention or action is the goal.
This concept also applies to phrasing such as began to or started to. Unless the beginning of an action needs to be emphasized, it’s usually best to just say what the character did.
Present participle -ing
This is a perfectly acceptable grammatical tool to use when shaping a sentence. If you’re using it as a tool and not as a crutch. The two most common problems with the -ing construction are that it frequently attaches itself to nouns it should not be modifying (creating a dangling modifier) and that it implies concurrent action with the main verb.
Hanging on with her bare hands, the rope made her hands raw and red. Wait, what? The rope is hanging on?
Leaving the room, she set her coffee mug in the sink. Nope. Can’t do both of those at the same time. She set her coffee mug in the sink and left the room.
Except for the dangling modifier, these trigger words are not technically wrong, and they won’t typically be changed by a copy editor or proofreader. These are issues addressed by a line editor or a substantive editor.
If you cut unnecessary words and tighten the writing, your novel will be more likely to keep readers hooked. Make every word earn its place in your work.