29 Words to Cut from Your Novel

Writing advice for making your fiction or nonfiction clear and concise. Editing advice to help you.

Each writer lives in a special, unique mind. Each can combine words into glorious chains, never before seen by human eyes. Yet, each writer is also a flawed human, who is liable to trip on the same rubble on the path to beautiful writing as every other writer. (And now writer wants to hear that there are words to cut from their writing…)

Now, first drafts are supposed to be messy. Second drafts, less so. But it’s not easy to clean up the first draft to turn it into the second. Nor is it simple to revise the second draft into the third. As an editor, I know. I’ve been there with my own writing and the writing of others.

Behold! A Video to Help!

Vivien Reis is a writer, editor and YouTuber

I’ve had this video saved for a couple of years, and I keep referencing it when editing my clients’ fiction and nonfiction. 

When I thought about writing a blog on the topic of editing for word choice, I started to make my own list of words to cut. Then I realized: Why re-invent the wheel? Vivian’s done a spectacular job to begin with.

Instructions for Word Choice Edits & Which Words to Cut

Generally, I suggest writers do at least one edit through their manuscript for “word choice.” As you watch this video, take notes on which of these writing habits you’ve gotten yourself into, which of these words to cut you think might show up in your work. 

Then, open your manuscript. Let’s take a look at the current status. 

Do an automated search for the first word or phrase in question. In MS Word and Google Docs, you can Find specific words or phrases by pressing CTRL + F (or Command F on Mac) on your keyboard. When you have the results, record the number of appearances in your notes. 

Search for all the words or phrases, without making any changes. First, you’re just gathering info. 

Making Changes

First, let me say: I do not advise that you use “Find + Replace All”.

I advise that you find all instances of a word or phrase, then examine each to determine the necessary action.

Yes. It is tedious. I understand. I have two points for you to consider: 

  1. Writing the book was tedious. You did that though. You can do this part.
  2. If you don’t do it, you can always pay your editor to edit these out for you. 

The reason I do not advocate that you simply “delete all” uses of a word or phrase, is that it will cause additional unintended effects. Trust me. Especially if what you Find & Replace can sometimes appear as part of another word. 

Instead, work your way through the words and phrases you’d like to cut or revise, search for each individually, then examine each occurrence and make a decision about how to handle each of them.

Some Words to Cut "Big Offenders"

In the video, Vivian points out some of the biggest offenders that have become littered across contemporary writing. These are words — typically, adverbs — that can easily be removed, and generally when they are, your sentence will lose no meaning. 

Here is my “Big Offenders” list of words to cut. I commonly see each of these, and spend a significant amount of time and energy making sure to reduce their use.

  • very
  • just
  • that
  • ‘began’ or ‘started’
  • ‘a bit’, ‘a little’, ‘a lot’, and other imprecise amounts
  • ‘kinda’, ‘sorta’, ‘almost’, and other hedging words
In particular, I see ‘just’ frequently used, so I’ll pick on it as an example. Unless you’re discussing the concept of ‘justice,’ limit the use of ‘just.’ Just is just one of those words that just works itself into a sentence just about anywhere.

Bonus Thoughts on Words to Cut from Your Writing

What else do I look at when editing? Two other things I notice frequently that I suggest you examine in your manuscript: 

  1. “Parallel action”: You can find this by searching for the use of ‘as’ in your writing. It usually appears in dialogue tags, as in: she said as she walked or he thought while grabbing his hat. Of course, you will need to use this sometimes. Remember to vary your sentence structure.
  2. “Extreme hyperbole”: Examine your fight or action scenes. Do your characters often over-exert themselves? I often see phrasing like as hard as she could or with the last of his strength, only to have the character continue to escalate the action after that phrase. Consider how to build tension Show the exertion, rather than tell about it.

Maybe these aren’t words to “cut,” but they are certainly things you want to be mindful of. 

Ready to talk about editing?

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